Review: ‘The End of the Tour’ Offers a Tale of Two Davids

30 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

How Jason Segel transformed for ‘Tour’.

“There’s an unhappy paradox about literary biographies,” David Foster Wallace observed in The New York Times Book Review in 2004, in reference to a life of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Did I feel like I was being played by Jason Segel, who has spent much of this week holding earnest conversations with journalists in the lobby bar of the Bowery Hotel in downtown Manhattan?

What’s the best conversation you’ve ever had? “The End of the Tour” is a five-day bender of a talk — a film that illuminates like few others the singular pleasure of shared discovery of one another’s sensibility.Segel, 35, has made a career portraying affable, endearing personalities — from Gary, BFF to a muppet named Walter in The Muppets, to goofy Marshall in TV’s How I Met Your Mother.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Many journalists who have written feature profiles of public figures will have experienced that light-bulb moment, once the cautious mutual-assessment phase is concluded and you start digging for the meat, when the subject perhaps casually reveals some illuminating aspect of him- or herself around which the entire article can be built. Readers who pick up such books, drawn by their admiration for a writer’s work, are likely to find themselves distracted and disappointed by a welter of iffy theories and picayune data. But in Tour (opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles), Segel steps up to the complex role of Infinite Jest author Wallace, who struggled with depression and killed himself in 2008 at age 46.

Wallace had been a model of gentlemanly calm throughout the editing process on his essay about David Lynch for Premiere magazine, where I worked at the time. (It wasn’t until our third session that he stopped calling me “Mr Kenny.”) But now he sounded close to panic. In the case of Borges, Wallace argued, “the stories so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.” The same can be said of Wallace himself, and, for that matter, of just about any author worth reading. The film depicts a five-day interview with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). “We sometimes buckle when someone we know takes on a more dramatic role,” says Tour director James Ponsoldt. “Perhaps it shows the limits to our imagination.” Employing the hair and bandanna: Wallace’s unorthodox look is striking right off and a significant discussion point in Tour. A friend of his, Wallace said, had been listening to an NPR segment about the Noah Baumbach film Mr Jealousy and had heard one of the actors name-check Wallace as an inspiration for the character he played.

The same compassionate observation of human imperfections that distinguished Ponsoldt’s films “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now” makes him an ideal interpreter of this material, while playwright Donald Margulies’ thoughtful screenplay brings tremendous insight into the way writers’ minds work. Any interview with an actor involves an element of performance, and this was a pretty solid one. (Segel didn’t ask me to help me rearrange the pictures on the walls of his hotel room, and then deride me for my command of Spanish and my perceived lack of outdoorsy knowledge, as Tommy Lee Jones once did.) When the actor in question is talking about playing a highly self-aware literary genius who was always asking questions about artifice and authenticity – in a movie that is itself about the awkward dynamics and ethics of the interview process – then the performance demands expert calibration. This is no conventional biodrama about the tortured artist, but very much the film that lovers of Wallace’s dazzlingly perspicacious fiction and essays would want. So when Jason Segel says, “I try to do things that scare me,” one could be forgiven for thinking he’s steering the conversation into well-worn territory. This is a man of endless contradictions; he’s shaggy and sleepy-headed but sharp and always questioning, wryly candid but then unexpectedly defensive and guarded.

Scaring himself, after all, is what led him to write and star in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall (a project that he calls one of his most honest performances and includes what was surely a scary-to-film full-frontal nude scene); it was what helped bolster him when he decided to bring back our favorite felted figures in 2011’s The Muppets; and it’s what inspired him to write Nightmares!, the children’s book series about facing your fears. Wallace fans heaped social-media derision on Segel as soon as the casting choice was announced, and the potential for either an exploitative wallow in the past of a famous suicide or a tedious hagiography (or maybe, somehow, both) was evident.

I even (somehow) checked out the NPR segment, and it turned out the invocation of his name had been pretty generic: Eigeman had described playing a male “voice of his generation” type of writer, mentioning both Wallace and Jay McInerney, the latter a fellow whose public persona is almost the precise inverse of Wallace’s. His power to feel is too acute though, and the film is a doleful flashback from the news that he took his own life in 2008, 12 years after the interview depicted in the film. The film considers such intangibles as the illusory bond of friendship between ambitious interviewer and celebrated subject, professional envy, the loneliness of writing, the mental transference of reading, and the sheer exhilarating buzz of stimulating two-way conversation. On the other hand, the bizarre media cycle around this movie almost certainly paid off for Segel in the end: When Ponsoldt’s film premiered at Sundance and was universally greeted as non-terrible, Segel’s shaggy, boyish, alternately seductive and evasive performance as Wallace became a signifier of artistic courage and resilience, both a comeback narrative and a career turnaround. You want to be in the back of that car, listening to these guys talking about serious issues and what’s on the radio,” says Segel. “(Boy band) Hanson comes on the radio and these guys have a five-minute discussion on them.

The humor remains, but Segel goes darker than he ever has to transform into the complicated, conflicted, brilliant literary figure who committed suicide in 2008. It’s really cool to hear the biggest brain of a generation talk pop culture.” There was also a illuminating video of Wallace’s Charlie Rose interview during that time period. “I watched that video over and over and zeroed in on his speech patterns, the way he used his hands,” says Segel. “I know what it’s like to inhabit this body,” he adds. “It helps make you aware you are a little bit different.

It adopts the late writer’s perspective as the apologetic representative of a privileged, over-educated generation frequently destined to find disappointment in achievement. From the moment Lipsky, played with seductive intelligence and a secret smile by Eisenberg, arrives at Wallace’s bachelor cave in snowbound Bloomington, Illinois, the scene is set for mesmerizing mind games.

Over the course of 106 minutes, the two men spar over everything from Alanis Morissette and cheeseburgers to talent, ambition, and depression — managing to forge a fragile intimacy in the process. He fears dating because, notes the author of the 1,079 page novel “Infinite Jest,” “I wouldn’t know what to say.” He offers that one way he has gotten smarter is to realize he isn’t necessarily smarter than others. Having read the rhapsodic reviews of Wallace’s encyclopedic 1,079-page 1996 novel Infinite Jest and then been somewhat crushed to find they weren’t exaggerating, Lipsky, himself a published fiction author of more modest success, pitched a feature to Rolling Stone, a magazine with scant history of profiling writers. One is Wallace (Jason Segel), whose third book of fiction, the 1,079-page dystopian tennis-rehab epic “Infinite Jest,” has just been published to hyperbolic acclaim. For instance, whenever Jonathan Franzen utters or publishes some pained but unsparing observations about his late friend, Wallace’s fanbase recoils, posting comments on the internet about how self-serving he is, or how he really didn’t “get” Wallace.

He accompanied Wallace on the final leg of his book tour, but the interview was never published, its intimate revelations surfacing only later as a memoir following the subject’s untimely death. An early scene finds him on his couch reading “Infinite Jest” while his girlfriend, Sarah (Anna Chlumsky), is curled up with the season’s other fictional blockbuster, the anonymously published political roman à clef “Primary Colors.” (Oh, the ’90s. Then, at dinner with Wallace’s pal Julie (Mamie Gummer) and his former college love Betsy (Mickey Sumner), the low-key author accuses Lipsky of crass flirting. You watch early Tom Hanks, early Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart performances — you just like hanging out with those guys regardless of the context or the film they’re in.

The writer Maria Bustillos (who styled herself a kind of Wallace expert by republishing, with precious little real insight, juicy marginalia about his mother from his marked-up books) promptly contributed a tetchy piece to the Awl titled The Dead Cannot Consent. I felt that way about Jason.” While filming Tour in Michigan in the winter of 2014, Ponsoldt discovered many people felt the same way. “Jason is a very recognizable guy,” the director says. “If you’re on people’s TV sets several times a day, people think that they know you. Referring to “The Trust” as if it were some Orwellian construct rather than a small entity headed by Karen Green, who was married to Wallace from 2004 until his death, Bustillos sniffed: “Why even speculate on the sad and unfathomable question of what Wallace would or would not have consented to, had he not committed suicide?” I would dare say the question is not particularly unfathomable to Green, or to Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s literary agent, or, indeed, to Pietsch. As the details accumulate, so does the power of the film, an illuminating meditation on art and life that hits you hard with its ferocity and feeling. He ambles about in Wallace’s guise of granny glasses, straggly hippie hair wrapped in a bandanna, and anti-fashion apparel that marks him as resistant to his cresting fame, as does his unpretentious Midwestern speech.

For a movie that’s almost entirely driven by talk, this has a graceful fluidity thanks to Jakob Ihre’s elegant widescreen cinematography and Darrin Navarro’s editing, moving the action smoothly from place to place with unerring rhythm. Ponsoldt, whose earlier features include “The Spectacular Now” and “Smashed,” would much rather observe two people in aimless conversation than usher them through the tollbooths of narrative convention.

Even on Salon.com! [Laughter.] On the same website you will see a thing that seems legitimate next to an optional click that says “10 celebrities with fat spouses.” I just realized at one point that it would be better for me to not look at this stuff. You know how you perceive them, but you don’t know what it’s like to sit in their skin at home when they’re alone at night.” When Segel first read Donald Margulies’ script, he instantly loved it but wondered why Ponsoldt thought of him for the role. While he’s turned in quiet, poignant performances in smaller films such as Jeff Who Lives at Home, he’s still known mainly as the lovable lug in broad comedies like I Love You, Man and The Five-Year Engagement.

We maintained friendly relations even after the handling at Premiere of what became Big Red Son made him angry enough to use the word “bowdlerized” (entirely accurately) in a note in Consider the Lobster. We mostly spoke on the phone, and after 2004, the biggest portions of our conversations had to do with how fortunate we were to have met our respective spouses. Lipsky’s tape recorder in 1996 and transcribed, 14 years later, for publication in a book called “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.” Funny, intriguing and revealing as this talk may be, it does not have anything like the status of Wallace’s writing. In the last image Ponsoldt gives us of Wallace, the former athlete is doing something that distills what his words do with such artful abandon: dancing. 2015 may not bring everything that Back to the Future II promised it would: flying cars, self-lacing shoes, we don’t see ’em happening over the next 12 months. (Then again, don’t bet against Nike.) But this year will definitely pack plenty of punch when it comes to cultural happenings.

The only thing that comes up as a journalist that’s anything like that is when you get a lot of either hostile or positive feedback, and that becomes really addictive really fast if you permit it to. Mad Max will roar back out of the apocalypse while Mad Men rides off into the sunset, rock’s Antichrist Superstar and hip-hop’s Yeezus will rise again. In his would-be profiler’s company, occasionally glancing at the menacing red light of the predigital tape recorder, Wallace is by turns cagey and candid, witty and earnest, but he is always aware, at times painfully, that he is playing the role of a writer in someone else’s fantasy.

I get asked a lot in these interviews, “How did you feel about people’s reaction when you were cast in this movie?” My answer is I had no response to criticism of the hypothetical performance I haven’t given yet. Segel’s performance, whether it captures the true Wallace or not, is sharp and sensitive, in no small part because it’s modest and appropriately evasive. I better make friends with that other part of myself that either tells you that you’re doing great or you’re a piece of s—,’ ” he says. “We all have that Other Us that is with us at all times — you can’t get rid of that.” Segel brushes off Oscar talk (“If Jason were the type of person that engaged with that too much, I think he might’ve been the wrong person to play the role,” says his director) and insists he’s just excited for the rest of the world to see Tour. “When they said, ‘That’s a wrap,’ I felt like I had done everything I possibly could to do my job well,” he says. “That’s a great feeling. It follows fictionalised versions of Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (played by Jason Segel) over a five-day period in 1996, bookended by scenes set in 2008 in which Lipsky’s character reflects on Wallace’s death and legacy. The essential David Wallace is precisely what the film reminds us we can’t see, even as David Lipsky wants desperately to track him down and display him to the readers of Rolling Stone.

He said, ‘Oh, I’m sure you did better than that.’ I said to him, ‘No, I mean it in the right way.” He smiles. “I did the best that I could.” What’s the difference in responsibility, as an actor, between playing a fictional character invented by a screenwriter, whether or not drawn from real life, and playing a real person who was recently alive and who was known and admired and loved by many living people?

The more relevant question, the moral problem on which the movie turns, is “who is David Lipsky?” In real life, David Lipsky might be a great guy, but on screen he is played by Mr. Lipsky’s assignment is to pry, distort and betray, to use Wallace’s words and the details of his existence as material for his own dubious project. Who believe the simplistic claim, most recently put forward in the above-mentioned Los Angeles Times piece, that Wallace was “fiercely opposed to irony”. Wallace knows this and acquiesces to it — “you agreed to the interview” is Lipsky’s fallback when his subject gets prickly — and generally handles himself with grace and forbearance.

What Wallace was opposed to was cheap, reflexive irony, not literary irony, but neither Lipsky’s own book nor its resultant movie are terribly concerned with the literary; they present a Wallace happier to talk about Alanis Morissette than John Barth. The literary critic Christian Lorentzen noted, in a recent New York magazine essay, that the movie manages to betray Wallace’s thought in Wallace’s own words, and that’s almost exactly true. Likely, if he was anything like me — which is a premise I had to adopt first, that we are all the same — then what was at the front of his brain were the themes of “Infinite Jest.” That’s what he’s been thinking about, talking about, and writing about for X number of years.

And in the end, having sat through the film twice, I haven’t been able to resolve the contradiction of my experience and the film’s portrayal of Wallace. There would be no pseudo-authoritative biographies or prying, preening magazine profiles to complicate our pleasures, and ambitious actors would not dare to impersonate beloved novelists. In the opening of Yourself, Lipsky describes Wallace speaking in “the universal sportsman’s accent: the disappearing G’s, ‘wudn’t,’ ‘dudn’t’ and ‘idn’t’ and ‘sumpin.’” Segel takes Lipsky’s cue. And if so, will you please join me in this conversation?” Then when I started approaching the actual material, the actual words I was going to say, I tried to make it all that by trying to start a conversation with Lipsky, that Lipsky refuses to engage in. Meanwhile Eisenberg’s Lipsky is given to us deprecatingly at first, as a pushy city slicker who wants what Wallace has – genius, fame or more specifically, literary “it boy” status – and can’t understand Wallace’s ambivalence about those same things.

It’s a moment where he is like, “Oh shit, I’ve been calling this guy a liar and maybe he wasn’t lying and I missed the real story.” I didn’t even know that was the climax of the movie until I saw it for the first time with [director] James Ponsoldt. It turns out the self-critical perspective is there to better valorise Lipsky at the film’s end, in which he’s portrayed as the still-living writer who carries the message of Wallace, to NPR, to bookstore readings – everywhere he goes. It happened and I thought it was good, but then I was like, “Maybe I would like a little more, to feel something more.” Then I leave and Lipsky goes through the house, and Ponsoldt finds this moment that is just incredibly moving.

Any time I’ve ever thought about directing I think to myself, “Yeah but directing is an actual skill and passion.” That was confirmed for me when I worked with Ponsoldt, with moments like that. Instead, they all worked very hard and delivered a “celebrity writer dude” portrait on an admittedly very tasteful plate. “Too soon,” indeed.

It had to feel like a conversation and you had to know the words, but also understand what you were trying to say so well that they seemed like spontaneous thoughts. That’s what resonates with people about “Infinite Jest.” He could say these things about suicide and depression that express “just leave me alone,” which is what you and I may be capable of saying. There were moments when I would think of an idea and be like [miming exhaustion and deflation], “Oh, that’s a good idea.” That’s a bummer of a way to feel as an artist, when you aren’t inspired to do the actual thing you are good at. Let’s get back to another issue you mentioned earlier, Wallace’s idea that the things that are supposed to bring us happiness and pleasure, the things our culture has been founded on, are maybe not working the way they’re supposed to. It’s designed to keep you clicking on those links – that one leads to another fun list, like “10 major talk-show fails.” It’s really hard, because I understand why it’s interesting.

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