Of all the novelists in the past 25 years, few have had such an aura surrounding their work, life and death as that of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps this is the reason the film The End of the Tour came to fruition. But first, a little backstory. Wallace’s 1996 tome Infinite Jest has found itself on the book shelves of readers of serious adult fiction around the world, and his plethora of essays (which tackled everything from sports to pornography) are still widely read and dissected in the literary world. In his lifetime, he reached a level of respect and broad appeal that few authors could have hoped to achieve (think Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger), yet Wallace was far from complacent with his status. He struggled with depression for much of his life and committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. While his tragic death has certainly augmented the zeal for his legacy, it certainly hasn’t exaggerated it either.
The End of the Tour is based off of journalist/novelist David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film is about an interview that Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) had with Wallace (played by Jason Segel) in 1996, after the publication of Infinite Jest. Lipsky was a writer for Rolling Stone magazine at the time and looking for a feature story that would take him away from the monotony of “boy band” articles. Having just written a novel himself, The Art Fair, Lipsky was looking to tackle another author of fiction, which is something Rolling Stone hadn’t covered in decades. He gets the go ahead from his editor and flies out to Illinois where he’d accompany David Foster Wallace for the remainder of his book signing tour.
Basically, The End of the Tour is a film about two very different writers coming from two very different mindsets. Lipsky is a man who hasn’t reached an iota of the success that Wallace has but wishes to inquire from Wallace what it’s like to become such an overnight triumph. Wallace, however, is clearly not so respondent toward any “success” the book has brought him. He lives in a small rural town instead of a big city, he refuses to have Q+A sessions after his book signings, and he is constantly dressed in a casually informal way (he also gets annoyed when asked if his style of dress is a marketing ploy to appeal to a younger audience). As the film goes on, we get more and more inferences into why Wallace was such a depressive man, yet it never spoon-feeds us directly.
The End of the Tour is heavy on dialogue. This aspect clearly calls for two great actors, and the film delivers on at least half of that conviction. As you may have been hearing since the film premiered at Sundance last January, Jason Segel’s performance is a real game-changer for the 35-year-old actor. Known primarily for starring in comedies, one would think he’d be an odd choice to cast as the tortured David Foster Wallace (at 6’4″, he’s also quite a bit larger than Wallace was). What most people may not know is that Wallace was also a really affable man with a visible sense of humor, and Segel captures that in spades. Even when the film delves into Wallace’s demons, Segel still sells a convincing performance, expressing all the mannerisms and tics to let us feel him. Jessie Eisenberg is less impressive as Lipsky, only because his performance is reminiscent of his type-cast. He once again plays an intelligent, somewhat unseasoned, young man, but it’s also transparent to the viewer that his role in this film is strictly as a purveyor. It actually may have been unfortunate if another actor distracted from Segel’s mesmerizing role.
The fourth film from director James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour continues the director’s streak of thoughtful and invigorating character dramas. He’s a director who knows both how to muster powerful performances from his actors and elicit a full emotional discharge from his scripts. Working with cinematographer Jakob Ihre, Ponsoldt keeps the shots low-key but uses the lighting to make them illuminating in a more subtle sense (the chief scene where this is implemented is during a long shot near the end when Lipsky examines the contents of Wallace’s house). While it may lack the transcendent opulence of his last film (2013’s highly captivating The Spectacular Now), The End of the Tour is yet another impressive effort on Ponsoldt’s part and makes one eager for future projects of his.