August 23, 2015 at 5:52 am #192772
Earlier this year all four acting Oscars were awarded for performances in which the character played was a college professor. While each actor was strong, the films themselves varied widely in terms of quality. While acknowledging that two characters suffered from maladies that inhibited their ability to speak, I contend that none of the four films adequately presented how an intellectual embraces language.
That is not the case in the superb new film The End of the Tour. The script, a first screenplay by noted playwright and Yale professor Donald Margulies, celebrates conversation, revels in rich vocabulary, and delves into a discussion of ideas as pleasure. The result is funny, moving and thrilling – everything a summer picture should be.
The subject matter shouldn’t be this compelling. It retells a five day interview between a moderately successful writer David Lipsky who is composing a feature article for Rolling Stone on the celebrated writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace is on a promotional tour for his 3 pound, 3 ounce tome Infinite Jest which has captured fine reviews. During these five days, the two men attend a class taught by Wallace, stay in his home, travel to a small independent book store for a book signing, and visit the Mall of America. Throughout the five days, the interviewer and his subject engage in a challenging, thoughtful dialogue.
The news here is Jason Segel. His work is phenomenal and Oscar worthy. Segel adopts Wallace’s bandanna and unkempt attire as a badge of honor. His performance is so true that I honestly believed this was David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky gives his best performance since The Social Network. He is, obviously, an actor who thrives in playing smart men. Both actors handle the high level dialogue well.
For the movie’s celebration of language, it is the quiet scenes that resonate. Early in the film Lipsky acknowledges Wallace’s problems with alcohol and pledges not to drink. A few days later Wallace misinterprets an encounter he witnesses and viciously berates Lipsky. Lipsky goes to the refrigerator and retrieves a bottle of beer. He walks directly into Wallace’s sightline, pops the cap, and takes a long drink. Eisenberg captures a look of righteous anger as Segel registers a look of surprise, betrayal and most urgently longing. Director James Ponsoldt knows when to allow his actors a close up that is rich. It should be noted that the film features two outstanding cameo performances as well.
Mamie Gummer plays Julie, an editor who is not far from groupie. She met Wallace after writing a fan letter and reports when invited. There has been continuing questions if Gummer has the chops to follow in her mother’s (Meryl Streep) career. If you are interested, skip that forgettable dreck Ricki and the Flash. See this. The role is underwritten. While Gummer doesn’t have a lot to do, she conveys a fan full of yearning to engage with the renowned writer. There is a long scene where Julie falls asleep while Lipsky and Wallace continue talking. Yet, while Segel is giving an Oscar worthy performance, my eye kept wandering to watch the napping woman. Is Julie feigning sleep to eavesdrop? Gummer has a gift worthy of a well written role.
Two time Oscar nominee Joan Cusack plays Patty, Wallace’s driver during his final promotional tour stop in the Twin Cities. As always, Cusack is terrific. She has a funny monologue about her role a driver and the various celebrities with whom she has had a private moment while she drove them from the airport to the hotel and back. Ponsoldt keeps his camera on Lipsky during the monologue as we see that Lipsky is self-aware enough to know that his five days with a celebrity are not much different than Patty’s 45 minute car rides.
There is a subtext here about fame and its effect on the celebrities and the rest of us. We are repelled and attracted by its allure simultaneously. Wallace addresses this quite eloquently in the film.
The movie opens with the news of Wallace’s suicide. As the story progresses, we learn more about his battle with depression and his account of his life which he may or may not be editing as he speaks with the journalist. The film ends with a moment of great joy as Wallace becomes his true self in the most unlikely of places. A moment of great joy that mirrors our pleasure in watching this fine film.August 23, 2015 at 6:23 am #192774
I’ve heard great things about the film, yet despite the rave reviews he received, I still have my preconceptions about Jason Segel. My main worry is that his performance is one of those self-conscious “I’m a serious actor” performances because of how he changes his appearance and talks in a very melancholic manner. To be fair, though, it’s a worry I often have with performances by comedians going serious. Sometimes, my worries are true (Steve Carell in Foxcatcher) but sometimes they’re not (Jim Carrey in The Truman Show).