One of the peculiarities of film festivals is the way the good movies you see rattle around in your head for days, joined by others like ping-pong balls in a lottery drawing. There’s no obvious connection between “The End of the Tour,” which adapts David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, into a feature starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, and “The Wolfpack,” Crystal Moselle’s documentary about six brothers, confined to a New York apartment, whose only experience of the outside world came from watching Hollywood movies. But as I mulled over my vague dissatisfactions with Moselle’s doc, James Ponsoldt’s fiction helped them take solid form.
Even given Ponsoldt’s track record — a solid debut with “Smashed,” and a teenage classic with “The Spectacular Now” — “The End of the Tour” seemed from afar like a slo-mo train wreck in progress. Take Lipsky’s vaguely ghoulish book, drawn from the unused tapes of a 1996 interview for Rolling Stone but written only after Wallace’s 2008 suicide, add a movie star with no dramatic credits impersonating a dead famous person, throw in the vocal objections of Wallace’s family and the fact that he would have hated being portrayed on film, and, well, it doesn’t look good. But “The End of the Tour,” which was adapted by Pulitzer-winner playwright Donald Margulies, takes those negatives and makes them the movie’s core, so that in some ways what Eisenberg-Lipsky and Segel-Wallace are fencing over is whether they should be doing this in the first place.
I don’t know Wallace well enough to judge how accurately Segel captures his physical presence, nor does that aspect much interest me; impersonation is, if not the lowest form of acting, certainly the least interesting. What’s intriguing, and eventually engrossing, about “The End of the Tour” is the interplay between Lipsky and Wallace, especially how the movie at every stage disrupts the traditional identification with the diligent journalist. We enter through Lipsky’s point of view, joining him as he gets a phone call asking if he’s heard the news about Walllace’s death. “You knew Dave Wallace as well as anyone,” says the voice on the other end of the line; the way Lipsky darts to his laptop to Google Wallace’s suggests the opposite.
Flash back, after Lipsky eulogizes Wallace on NPR, to 1996, where Lipsky, who’s just published an instantly obscure first novel, pitches his reluctant Rolling Stone editor on a Wallace interview, and heads off to snowbound Illinois, where Wallace is preparing to head out for the last stop on his book tour.
As Segel plays him, Wallace has an almost puppyish amiability, mixed with bouts of prickly cautiousness. “I don’t even know if I like you yet,” he tells Lipsky, “but I’m so nervous if you like me.” As the pair spend the next three days together, their relationship grows less polite and more complicated, and as it does, our allegiances begin to shift. We start in Lipsky’s corner, wanting him to get Wallace to reveal himself: Why else, after all, are we here? But Eisenberg, as is his wont, plays up Lipsky’s narcissism and his underlying hostility, his need for Wallace to acknowledge him as a peer and his desire to take him down a peg. Wallace is a generous host, offering Lipsky his spare room and digging his rental car out of the snow; Lipsky repays his generosity by peering into Wallace’s medicine cabinet. After Wallace makes a heartfelt statement to Lipsky outside the context of a formal interview and then leaves the room, you know Lipsky is going to lunge for his notepad the second the door shuts, but you cringe when he does it anyway.
The looks on my colleagues’ faces — and, no doubt, mine as well — after “The End of the Tour’s” screening might have been those of a teenager whose mom just discovered a joint in his sock drawer: Caught. On Twitter, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described experiencing an “seizure of empathetic shame” as Lipsky ransacked Wallace’s living quarters for potentially utile details. Although it’s centered around “Infinite Jest,” the movie’s true inspiration is Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer,” in which she described journalism as “morally indefensible.” Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a snake in the grass, and he doesn’t even seem to know it.
But if “The End of the Tour” is unsympathetic to Lipsky, it is not unfair or inaccurate — unlike, say, the risible portrait of a New York Times reporter in Chris Rock’s “Top Five.” Nor is Wallace an innocent: As he points out, he’s written these sorts of profiles himself, which is how he knows the extent of Lipsky’s power to twist his words into anything at all. Wallace genuinely wants to cut through the bullshit and address his interview as a fellow human being, but he’s too smart, too self-conscious, to ever lose the itch in the back of his mind, the constant knowledge that anything he says can and will be used against him. Even as he rages at a series of confrontational questions from Lipsky, Wallace admires his canniness: “This is such a smart tactic!”
The balance isn’t the same for “The End of the Tour” itself: Wallace is not around to fend for himself; if he were, the movie would not even exist. But it is, for whatever it’s worth, aware of that fact, which is baked into its dialectical structure. You can’t say the same for “The Wolfpack,” which is fascinated by but strangely distant from is subjects, the Angulo brothers. Moselle almost literally stumbled onto an amazing story — according to her account, she struck up a conversation during one of the Angulos’ rare outings, they found out she was a filmmaker, and the rest was a slot at Sundance — but she only got part of it.
As often happens, especially in the context of a film festival, “The Wolfpack” was initially framed as a story about the power of film: According to the Sundance catalogue blurb, it “resonates with the audience as it portrays people raised on movies.” But it is, more pertinently, about survival, about six children who weathered what is by any standard a horrific ordeal.
Perhaps out of a desire to protect her subjects — or, less charitably, her access — Moselle hangs back, vérité style, watching the brothers as they assemble homemade reenactments of their favorite movies, which tend to lean, not surprisingly, towards those with male-dominated casts: “The Godfather,” “The Dark Knight,” “Reservoir Dogs.” Their recreations have some of the ingenious charm of the Sweded movies in “Be Kind Rewind”: Imagine a Batsuit fashioned entirely from cereal boxes and yoga mats. But there’s no trace of self-consciousness or irony to them, which makes you wonder how the Angulos receive, say, the mutilayered referentiality of “Pulp Fiction” (the brother who takes the role of Vincent Vega does a mean Travolta).
That question goes unanswered, as do far too many. We receive only secondhand the Angulos father, Oscar’s, rationale for keeping them virtually imprisoned; Oscar is such a tangential presence, in fact, that it’s a surprise when he first turns up alive. The boys’ elder sister, who is developmentally disabled, appears so fleetingly you could swear she was a hallucination.
Moselle, who at “The Wolfpack’s” world premiere had a programmer admonish the audience to focus their questions on the brothers’ present and future rather than their past, clearly wants to prevent them being turned into test subjects or circus freaks, which is understandable, even commendable. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the best way to shield the Angulos from public scrutiny would have been to not make a movie about them. That’s not to say that Moselle shouldn’t have, but that in order to make a documentary, you have to confront the fact that you are, in a very practical sense, using your subjects as raw material. Better documentaries do so empathetically, and the best confront the limits of that empathy.
The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman likened “The Wolfpack” to David and Albert Maysles’ “Grey Gardens,” but there’s a crucial difference (okay, maybe more than one) between the two films. The Maysles brothers are active characters in “Grey Gardens,” especially David, with whom the younger of the movie’s subjects, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, is palpably infatuated. We cannot help but question whether the Maysles should be peering in on Edie and her mother, who despite their close relation to Jackie Kennedy live in squalor and seem to be mentally ill, and rather than paper over that question, the movie — more to the point, its brilliant editors, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer — underlines it. We should not be watching, but we cannot look away.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold “The Wolfpack” to the standards of “Grey Gardens,” which is one of the greatest — and, eventually, most profoundly moving and empathetic — documentaries ever made. But it doesn’t seem unfair to measure it against “The End of the Tour,” which has both the brutal honestly and the killer instinct it lacks.