The three films that compose James Ponsoldt’s Addiction Trilogy – Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour - are, if not about addiction and vice, about singular points of view. The throughline equation found in each film finds a couplet, typically sharing a mutual worldview, rattled when one member departs from their prescribed deviance. Each film acknowledges and aligns itself with a singular perspective: Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in Smashed, Sutter (Miles Teller) in The Spectacular Now, and David (Jesse Eisenberg) in The End of the Tour are the nuclei whereby the wayward actions of those around them orbit and react. Well-intentioned and emotionally touching, the thematic similarities found in Ponsoldt’s films exhibit a director with a capacity for extracting quality performances. Yet in his new film The End of the Tour, Ponsoldt’s sincerity bequeaths simplicity, revealing the director’s limitations as a purveyor of emotions, and his inability to expound on their consequences in any meaningful formal way.
Smashed, Ponsoldt’s breakthrough sophomore film, depicts the struggles of a married couple. In a relationship tempered and cultivated by their shared alcoholism, Cate’s attempts at sobriety are complicated when the gears that operate her milieu – home, work, and social life – require alcohol for lubrication. The film hinges on the rocky relationship shared between Cate and Charlie (Aaron Paul), which is realized with attuned delicacy by the actors, but Ponsoldt’s absent directorial presence and messy comic subplotting interfere with the picture’s immediacy. It’s a film that most clearly defines the inherent difficulties in embracing Ponsoldt’s work: within the sincerity of the emotions and performances, there’s an austerity that’s disinterested in scratching too far beyond the surface.
Ponsoldt’s best film, The Spectacular Now, is a welcome complication by pondering not the remediation of addiction, but the toxic spread of it. It’s set within a naturalistic teenage milieu that welcomes a viewer to construct the edges, with Ponsoldt leaving empty spaces and pauses for an audience to paint the unpainted, to conjure the unsaid. Arguably, the film asks of its audience to do the heavy lifting, whereby the thinly drawn characters are brought to life by not just its actors but by its viewer – the experiences and points of view that an audience brings shapes the emotional verisimilitude of the work.
Though there’s this subsequent hesitation in calling The Spectacular Now a good, let alone, a great film. The emotional obscurity of the work lends itself to laziness, whereby the feeling is that Ponsoldt and his actors understand the characters but prove incapable to realizing their trajectory visually (only a singular scene in the film resonates, for reasons I’ll discuss later in this piece). This proves to be the chief problem I had with his recent film, the David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour.
The film involves a Rolling Stone journalist’s account of following David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the tail end of his Infinite Jest book tour. Celebrated as a rock star among the literati, this microcosm of a biopic attempts to parlay the genre’s usual penchant for historical condensation for something more intimate and specific: to be in the company of Wallace rather than to engorge on the writer’s history. Yet the interview that would eventually shape David Lipsky’s book is visualized as blandly as possible – the shot/reverse-shot conversation shared between Lipsky and Wallace as they talk in fast food restaurants, to the author’s living room, to their car is replicated again and again. Even as the dramatic tenor between the two begins to amplify, Ponsoldt uses sound – the blaring Danny Elfman score – to heighten the atmosphere, yet maintains his bland visual construction. And when he does complicate the visual presentation, as is the case in the film’s light-gushing finale, the effect registers as disingenuous to both its characters and their circumstances.
To quote Charlie Rose’s interview with David Foster Wallace, “if it is authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings”. That sensation is a highly subjective one, and it’s a feeling that I experienced during The Spectacular Now: a high school party at a quarry. Sutter, already rebuffed by his ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), jealously interjects on a conversation that Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is having with another boy. The two branch off from the group. In a sustained shot, Ponsoldt tracks the two. It’s the apex of Ponsoldt’s cinema: his reliance on actors to carry out a scene while ingratiated in a more formally rigorous approach within a naturalistic milieu, one riddled with both oppositional forces of vice (alcohol) and innocence (the blossoming relationship between Aimee and Sutter). Yet it’s also a scene that’s dictated less by a singular perspective, but a shared one. Perhaps that’s the problem I have uncovered with Ponsoldt’s cinema: its singular point of view is meant to establish psychological ambiguity, but instead comes across as uncomplicated and uninvolved.