After seeing two of his movies, the most impressive aspect of director James Ponsoldt’s filmmaking seems to be his ability to recreate “authentic” environments. One of the most impressive elements of his so-so The Spectacular Now was its depiction of a suburban landscape that actually looked like middle-class American households. Similarly, the Midwestern locations in The End of the Tour are as detailed as to be nominated for Best Production Design, if only the Academy could look past the low-key, mundane nature of the design.
The movie is told from the perspective of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), as he recalls the weekend he spent interviewing legendary novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) as traveled across the Midwest finishing up the book-tour for Infinite Jest. There is a moment late in the movie, when Wallace steps out for a moment, and Lipsky is left alone in his house. Lipsky grabs his tape recorder and starts naming all the items he can see (a Botticcelli calendar, an Alanis Morissette poster, etc.), rushing to every room before Wallace comes back inside.
It’s a moment that speaks volumes about the logistics of writing a piece on someone, Lipsky’s character, and his fascination (and frustration) with Wallace’s existence; not to mention what one can detect from the fact that Lipsky does this behind Wallace’s back… But the scene is representative of the spirit of Pondsoldt’s filmmaking, and his intentions as a story-teller. The way he treats his subject, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he is a big David Foster Wallace fan, but even more importantly, his style makes it seem as if he was predetermined to make a movie about him.
At this point I must confess I know nothing about David Foster Wallace. Based on this movie, and what I’ve read about his writing since watching it, he seems to have been deeply interested in the existential void of American life in the late twentieth century. Ponsoldt, who made a deeply Realistic teenage romance, and is not making a movie whose screenplay is composed of the actual words spoken by Wallace an recorded by Lipsky back in 1995, seems to be as obsessed with “authenticity” as the characters in this movie.
The conversations between Wallace in Lipsky revolve, more than anything, about the image they are sending out into the world. Wallace “treasures his regular guyness” and is overwhelmed by the attention that has come with his success. Lipsky can’t reconcile how Wallace’s behavior can seem so much like an affectation despite Wallace insisting it is anything but. Both of them are overwhelmingly preoccupied with what they project to the outside world, and with sticking to some abstract ideal of authenticity. They are deadly afraid of “selling out.”
Ponsoldt’s attention to detail in this movie is much appreciated, as is the work by cinematographer Jakob Ihre, whose use of stark natural light helps him nail the tricky task of conveying the temperature of the freezing Midwestern landscapes. The filmmaking suggests a movie that is focused on finding bits of “truth” in Lipsky’s interview. It is, perhaps, a little too focused on the facts of authenticity, and not so much in processing its own messages.
The movie works best as a portrayal of two intellectual types -one of them regarded as a brilliant genius- whose existence somehow seems to revolve around trying to control how other people perceive them. Such a task is, of course, impossible, and rather narcissistic. It is also the task that might defined the inner life of privileged America (and the privileged world in general).
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the movie, then, is that it ends up abandoning the exploration of these guys’ obsessions and buys wholeheartedly into the text of their conversations. In not so elegant terms, it starts to believe their bullshit. Which is not to say that they don’t say smart things, but that the machinations of their discourse become apparent when presented int his package. The thing is one feels smarter than the movie, even though some of the early details suggested a more intricate approach. That being said, I didn’t feel smarter than Wallace. Or Lipsky. Just the movie, and just in its final act.
Grade: 6 out of 10