PARK CITY, Utah — The End of the Tour, a shaggy new comedy-drama starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, may not end up being the most controversial film at Sundance 2015, which has already seen some unprecedented male nudity and a doc about the battle over ownership of a severed human leg. But it's got to be the most controversial film at the festival to consist only of two dudes chatting while rambling around the frozen Midwest.
It's who the movie's about that's contentious here: novelist David Foster Wallace, played by Segel. In 1996, when the movie is set, Wallace was rocketing to fame on the basis of his 1,000+ page postmodern masterwork Infinite Jest, and fellow writer David Lipsky (Eisenberg) spent a few days with him at the end of his book tour in order to write a profile of the literary wunderkind for Rolling Stone. That piece never came together. Two years after Wallace's 2008 suicide at age 46, Lipsky published Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript and personal account of Lipsky's time with Wallace that forms the basis of the movie.
It's an adaptation that's been directly opposed by Wallace's family, who released a statement stating that they "neither endorse nor support" the film, and that "David would have never agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie." And while securing the blessing of someone or their estate is no guarantee that a portrayal of that person will be better — and movies shouldn't be obligated to be in service of their subjects — the disapproval speaks to an underlying uneasiness of what's otherwise an astute, nicely acted duet that touches on fame, genius, professional rivalry, and addiction.
The End of the Tour is a movie about someone whose own words suggest he would find such a project agonizing, someone whose enjoyment of attention and acclaim was balanced out by a signature all-consuming self-consciousness. That doesn't make those words any less brilliant or worthy of being put on screen, where they crackle as Wallace and Lipsky trade confessions and barbs. But though it's more delicately done, The End of the Tour does end up being of a kind with My Week With Marilyn in serving as a window into the life of someone brilliant and doomed, over whose memory people possessively compete. It may not intend to romanticize these qualities, but in framing the story with Lipsky being notified of Wallace's suicide, it inescapably does.
The End of the Tour isn't a biopic, and when the movie's not peering so hard at Wallace, it settles into being a terrific back-and-forth between a subject and journalist who are both writers and therefore on the same and opposite sides of the table. The film, which was adeptly directed by The Spectacular Now's James Ponsoldt from a screenplay by playwright Donald Margulies, is, among other things, an excruciatingly accurate depiction of profile writing, something Wallace did himself. Lipsky pokes and prods at Wallace about his depression and the rumors of his drug use between bouts of lighter talk about Alanis Morissette and bandana-wearing, and he peeks into Wallace's medicine cabinet and office when his subject's not looking. Wallace, in turns, calls Lipsky out on looking for a narrative for his article, forbids access to his parents and friends, and highlights the weirdness of knowing someone will be putting their impressions of him on a page. "I don't even know if I like you yet, but I'm so nervous if you like me," Wallace confesses.
Eisenberg's in familiar territory as the jittery Lipsky, but Segel's a real surprise as Wallace, dexterously playing him as a man always trying to distance himself from the expectations of how a proclaimed genius is supposed to behave while being intensely aware of them. If Margulies' script sprawls a bit, feeling like the product of someone working with more good material than entirely fits in the space, it also leaves room for smaller moments, like the one in which Lipsky, peeved at Wallace, retaliates by drinking a beer in front of him after having previously abstained out of respect for Wallace's sobriety. The End of the Tour is a formidable film about trying to really grasp who someone is in a few short days together, and it's only when it returns to Wallace's death that it becomes uncomfortable again, linking the entire memory to tragedy, turning it into an anecdote about a guy who died. Controversy aside, with Wallace coming across as such a vivid, confounding, frightening, intelligent character on screen, that peg is definitely a shame.
Brooke (an enjoyably goofy Greta Gerwig), the ebullient flake in writer-director Noah Baumbach's Mistress America, also becomes the unwitting subject of someone else's art project — though unlike David Foster Wallace, Brooke is a fictional creation. A 30-year-old self-described autodidact, she's the not-yet-stepsister of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a Barnard freshman having trouble fitting in at college who falls in love with Brooke's glamorously haphazard New York life. Brooke's trying to open a restaurant/general store/salon in Williamsburg, between tutoring and teaching classes at SoulCycle and freelancing as an interior designer. She knows everyone; she gets invited onstage to sing with a band; she has a wealthy offscreen boyfriend in Greece who she describes as "the kind of person I hate, except I'm in love with him." She is, basically, an encapsulation of new New York bohemianism and knows it, and Tracy turns out to be her perfect, adoring audience, a receptacle for all of her thoughts and advice on life and love.
Tracy's also using Brooke as the unknowing subject of a short story she hopes will get her an invitation into New York literary society, a story that borrows details and lines from the real deal while casting her as an ill-fated, aging heroine, a remnant of a city that no longer has room for her. It's not a particularly flattering portrayal, but it's also not inaccurate, which adds to the sting. Like a magazine profile writer, Tracy has fit Brooke's life into a narrative. The story is the ticking time bomb, the confrontation waiting to happen in Baumbach's briskly paced, concentrated comedy, which is so packed with clever quips that it wavers between delightful and distancing. Brooke airily notes that people steal from her all the time, especially her ideas, before she seems to get anything done herself. Her life might be a muse, for Tracy and others, but they actually make things, while she continually finds herself with nothing.
It can be a thankless job, being the subject of someone else's story, even if it means you get the spotlight. Brooke, unlike Wallace, isn't an artist herself. Her life is her great product, and it's a wonderful thing, shown giddily with only the occasional sharp satirical edge from Baumbach. But it's also fleeting and insubstantial, not something that can be traded on the way, say, a good T-shirt idea might. She's shown as destined for an end that, while not as dark as suicide, is romanticized in its likely failure — a quality that Tracy writes about and that the film, filtered through her point of view, seems to support. Mistress America arrives at hurt feelings and eventual reconciliation, but it's ambivalent about the use of real people as inspiration for fiction of any sort. Do it, the film argues, and don't worry about permission, but understand that people rarely like seeing themselves as fodder. Brooke, at least, is around to remind Tracy and the audience that it can be harrowing to see yourself through someone else's eyes.