The End of the Tour is the kind of focused character study that would’ve felt at home in the more freewheeling cinema landscape of the 70’s but feels like an anachronism now. At its heart it’s simply a lengthy conversation between two writers, one of whom is a newly celebrated author and the other an ambitious journalist. There are no giant robots, superheroes or endless explosions on display, but there is a compelling narrative that spans many topics and lets two smart characters ruminate on writing, fame, loneliness and America itself too.
Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, who at the outset of the film is hearing of David Foster’s Wallace’s 2008 death. The movie then flashes back to 1996 and details the days during which a neophyte Lipsky interviewed the newly famous Wallace for Rolling Stone. Wallace (played by a transformed Jason Segel) was riding high at the time on a national wave of praise for his massive novel Infinite Jest and Lipsky, himself just a few years Wallace’s junior, was looking to make an impression in the New York literary world.
What follows is an unhurried character study that is as much about both Lipsky and Wallace as it is about the numerous ideas these guys hit on. Eisenberg’s hyper-verbosity and nervous energy is put to good use as Lipsky, a capable and intelligent writer who was only beginning his career despite having already published a novel. The movie is wise to sketch in the harried details of Lipsky’s New York life before sending him out to the Midwest to meet the reclusive Wallace, as once there it becomes clear that you can’t help but be pulled into Wallace’s charismatic orbit.
Jason Segel as Wallace is a revelation. When set photos first emerged of him wearing Wallace’s famous bandana it looked as though The End of the Tour might be more caricature than an honest portrayal, but those fears are quickly allayed by Segel’s performance. He melts into the role and, aided immeasurably by actual DFW quotes taken from Lipsky’s audio recordings and the book on which the movie is partially based (And of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself), begins to truly embody the sensitive, complex and brilliant Wallace.
Their scenes crackle with energy, as the possibly in-over-his-head Lispky desperately tries to draw the guarded Wallace out of his shell so he can go back to his editor with a worthwhile profile. They use competing expense accounts and spar over the affections of Wallace’s ex. Wallace doesn’t want his parents interviewed and doesn’t think it’s fair to have a girlfriend when he gives so much of himself to his writing. He has the musical taste of a 13-year-old girl (as his Alanis Morissette posters attests) and binges on candy, soda and cigarettes, having given up booze and drugs.
Lipsky senses a story there, and upon the urging of his editor tugs on that thread to discover more about the elusive Wallace. The answers aren’t immediately forthcoming, but director James Ponsoldt plays coy with audiences, laying subtle groundwork and building to an emotional climax that feels both satisfying and earned, without wholly breaking the naturalism that preceded it. This is the type of movie that might usually be more elusive (and does much to suggest rather than spell out), but the movie’s coda is nonetheless a welcome grace note, proving to be inspiring, hopeful and sad all at once.
Ponsoldt (having previously helmed both Smashed and The Spectacular Now) again chooses to make addiction a key element in unlocking his central character. That may seem trite or reductive as David Foster Wallace was a real and incredibly complex person, but in the context of the film it allows an avenue into his psyche without discounting other possible causes for dark thoughts. It’s not dominated by that darkness but does take the time to examine it closely and stare into that void.
And thankfully that’s one thing that The End of the Tour is not – a reason for or total reckoning with Wallace’s untimely death. The film is more respectful than that and doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but merely presents a moment in time with the writer at a turning point in his life, from unknown professor to literary darling. It’s richly enjoyable time spent with Wallace, who’s keen insights could make even the dullest subjects sparkle with humour and insight.
He talks about the downsides of masturbation and watching too much TV as a kid, about why he enjoys candy and spending time with his dogs, and also alludes to some deep loneliness. Wallace’s description of spending too much time online is incredibly prescient (especially for 1996), and that speech alone shows his innate ability to cut through the bullshit.
Wallace cherishes his “regular guy-ness” while Lipsky counters that when readers ingest Infinite Jest, they want that author to be a genius. Lispky wants Wallace to be something he perhaps isn’t, and finds out that deeper truths can be so different from our our expectations. And so these two men circle each, both wary of letting the other one in, finding much in common but also feeling the external pressures of professional obligations and jealousy. It’s verbal chess between two well-matched opponents, heavily infused with humour and whip-smart intelligence. Lispky would later describe the days-long conversation as “the best one I ever had.” To watch it is a rare pleasure.
The End of the Tour (2015)
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Runtime: 106 minutes