ITHACA, N.Y. — If this is the first time you’re hearing of The End of the Tour, you might just be late enough to enjoy the party.
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Since news broke in 2013 that David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, was being made into a film starring Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets) as the late, iconic writer, the press attending this project has been contentious, to say the least. Some of the most damning polemics against it, like Glenn Kenny’s personal essay for The Guardian, are well worth your time, but the unceasing talk around The End of the Tour has become, if I may say, too inside baseball.
Let’s say, however, you’re coming to The End of the Tour blind. From this ideal, Twitter-free void, two questions arise: 1) Are you familiar with Wallace’s work, namely Infinite Jest, his ubiquitous novel of 1079 pages, and his vivid, shamelessly subjective journalism, like “Consider the Lobster” or “Big Red Son”? and 2) Do you think too much? In 2015, a “yes” for one is likely to affirm the other, especially if you are a young man, the demographic Wallace identified, reluctantly or not, to be his most eager and visible readership.
But it’s Question #2 that most pertains to your prospective engagement with this film. In the case you are the internal, restless type who has not read DFW (an abbreviation that has solidly entered lit parlance, FYI), or who has but would not jump to sing his praises, you may find worth in The End of the Tour anyway. It is a slight, ultimately aimless film, yet also an uncommonly sweet and forthright portrait of genius under siege.
In the cold, early months of 1996, Little, Brown published Infinite Jest and sent Wallace on a 10-city book tour, a most high-profile promotion for a most high-achieving book. Around the same time, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) released his first novel, The Art Fair, to considerably less acclaim. The script, by Pulitzer winner Donald Margulies, proposes a Salieri-esque mix of envy and gobsmacked curiosity as impetus for Lipsky, also then a staff writer for Rolling Stone, to pitch a profile of Wallace to his editor (Ron Livingston). He accepts, citing his photogenic look, and Lipsky is off to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where Wallace lives alone with two hulking, black Labrador mixes. There they talk, Lipsky fidgeting with his audio recorder, and from there, Lipsky follows Wallace to readings, interviews, get-togethers and the Mall of America. Little else happens aside from a mounting passive-aggressiveness between interviewer and subject.
The plot’s threadbare, hangout feel allows director James Ponsoldt to sit back and let his actors grow closer and closer before a false move, like Lipsky conversing with Wallace’s grad-school ex a bit too zealously, sets them a chilly distance apart. Eisenberg and especially Segel cover a wide, albeit subdued emotional range, from trudging through an endless parking lot, steaming at one another, to commiserating about loneliness in Wallace’s living room, as R.E.M.’s Murmur croons from the corner stereo.
Keeping eye contact and speaking out of the corner of his mouth like that indisputably smart friend you know, Segel portrays Wallace as a friendly genius who slows down his speech, somewhat consciously, so that his insights may come across as casual. The Oscar buzz dogging Segel seems more a case of media outlets rallying around a leading part for one of their own (Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, et al), but given how self-congratulation is the Academy’s whole operating principle, this enthusiasm can be defended on aesthetic (Segel is good) and even sly political (aren’t writers something?) grounds. As a lived-in reenactment of Wallace in conversation, The End of the Tour offers consistent literary pleasures — on success (“not real”), television (inseparable from masturbation) and Alanis Morrisette (“pretty in a very sloppy, very human way”) — that should resonate with many, from those still devastated by Wallace’s death to those just grateful to witness a new American movie foreground intellectualism for some 106 minutes.
The End of the Tour cherishes Wallace so much that it, in the end, fails to develop a point-of-view on him, his legacy and pet themes (media, mental health, masculinity, etc.), aside from two thumbs way up. As the narrator and constant frame of reference, Lipsky distances us a bit from the mysterious, unknowable Wallace, yet his craven interviewing style only endears us more to his flummoxed subject, in addition to vilifying insincere New Yorkers, too. The film speaks no regional language, be it Midwestern or East Coast elitist, so the scenes of Wallace and Lipsky eating McDonald’s and driving down flat straightaways past other McDonald’s verge on lazy parody.
These sound like major, insurmountable problems for a movie to have, and they sort of are, though par for the course as far as biopics are concerned. Ponsoldt proves a fine director of actors but a lousy one in most other respects, stumbling upon few memorable compositions (Lipsky sleeping below pillars of boxed Infinite Jests is one) or discernible subtext (see above). Which is to say if The End of the Tour is not a good film, per se, it can do the viewer some good, as it did me, by depicting a thinking, struggling, dancing Wallace, in the flesh. Whether the man himself would have approved of such treatment is a question whose answer comes easier than some fans I think are willing to admit, yet I cannot help look at this inescapable folly without a sense of sincere, heavy gratitude.
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