Since 2012, director James Ponsoldt has been slowly building a name making relationship drama/comedies focused on two characters. Predominantly these were romantic, between Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed, and between Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now, with special focus on the verisimilitude of their characterizations. Whether it was Sutter’s casual unassuming alcoholism or the way Kate slipped into trying crack for the first time, Ponsoldt has never needed to boost his projects with unnecessary melodrama. His newest, The End of the Tour, manages to both continue his tendencies and compound on them in new ways. Still the story of a central relationship between two people, The End of Story flips the Ponsoldt script by stripping away the romance and setting the story in the real world, starring characters based on real people and real events.
The real people in this case are writer/journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and emerging literary superstar David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal). Lipsky has convinced Rolling Stone into running an interview feature while following him at the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest, the mammoth 1,000 pages opus that made him his name. Traveling from Wallace’s home in rural Illinois to Minneapolis and back, Wallace challenges Lipsky’s expectations of the sort of man he is, subverting expectations and proving he has more than his fair share of issues as well. Personal and professional jealousies alike collide as two fiercely creative and independent people are forced to spend too much time together in enclosed spaces.
For those who have not been following James Ponsoldt’s career path through the American independent scene, the draw here is likely Segal, who seems to be stepping out of his comfort zone with his take on David Foster Wallace. He has been most at ease playing a sort of everyman oversized goofball in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement or The Muppets (not to mention his long stint on How I Met Your Mother), and in that respect, The End of the Tour is certainly a departure. Wallace is withdrawn, laid back yet also cagey, his stringy hair tumbling out of an omnipresent bandana. He is a man of intelligence, but not in a conceited manner. He is a strong foil for Eisenberg, who is operating well within his wheelhouse as a man who views his interview subject with a mix of professional jealousy and awe. HE will not get any new converts here like he might have with last year’s The Double, but those who appreciate his notably particular brand of neurosis will find a lot to like here as always.
The End of the Tour is at its best when Segal and Eisenberg are forced to interact with the rest of polite society, and the supporting cast of Joan Cusack (Wallace’s assistant/guide for the final signing) and Anna Chlumsky and Mamie Gumber (old friends/flares of Wallace’s) put forth a much different energy than their one on one duels of speech. The beauty of these scenes is the way they upend the power dynamic established in their first meeting. The film feels like a one-way street, with Lipsky lurking in the shadows of this emerging literary titan, but Ponsoldt is smarter than to let such simplicity of approach define his characters and his film. When Wallace does suddenly find himself on the high end of the seesaw, control wrested away, Segal shows a much different, more petulant side that indicates these two men might not be as different as was initially insinuated.
The End of the Tour feels like an evolutionary step for Ponsoldt, both in the way he approaches his material and the polish with which he presents it. That does not automatically make it his best film (The Spectacular Now still holds that distinction), but it does indicate that he is here to stay. Ponsoldt has made what is technically a biopic, but one that is not particularly concerned with the sanctity of its subjects as the real men they are and were, but as human beings, nothing more or less. Supported by the expectedly steady hand of Jesse Eisenberg (just look at the man’s filmography) and the refreshingly layered nuance brought for a role unlike anything Jason Segal had attempted previously, this is a story of genius and jealousy, and of the comradery that can blossom from that tension. There are deep, satisfying wells of humanity at the heart of each Ponsoldt film, and The End of the Tour is no different.