The End of the Tour

by Andrew Stuttaford

When a friend suggested we go see the new movie, ‘The End of the Tour’, last night I was, to put it mildly, skeptical.  A film about the days that Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky spent interviewing the late David Foster Wallace not long after the publication of the latter’s Infinite Jest in 1996? Nightmare visions of ‘My Dinner with André’ danced before me.

I was wrong. This was the best new film that I have seen in a long time, a beautifully written, wonderfully performed movie that dodges the clichés of doomed genius and becomes instead a subtle examination of  days of only half-unacknowledged contest between the two men (Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, Jason Segel as Wallace) and of the two men themselves.  How true to life is it? I don’t know, but in this case I’m not sure how much it matters.

From A. O. Scott’s review in the New York Times:

Mr. Ponsoldt [the director], whose earlier features include “The Spectacular Now” and “Smashed,” would much rather observe two people in aimless conversation than usher them through the tollbooths of narrative convention. And conversation, including the uncomfortable silences that punctuate it, is pretty much the entire substance of “The End of the Tour.” Yes, there’s a fair amount of smoking and junk-food eating, an excursion to the Mall of America and a multiplex showing of “Broken Arrow” (with John Travolta taking a missile to the gut), but Mr. Ponsoldt and the screenwriter, the playwright Donald Margulies, allow words to speak louder than actions.

Many of the words are Wallace’s own, uttered into Mr. Lipsky’s tape recorder in 1996 and transcribed, 14 years later, for publication in a book called “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.” Funny, intriguing and revealing as this talk may be, it does not have anything like the status of Wallace’s writing. The film not only acknowledges this distinction, but it also insists on it. In his would-be profiler’s company, occasionally glancing at the menacing red light of the predigital tape recorder, Wallace is by turns cagey and candid, witty and earnest, but he is always aware, at times painfully, that he is playing the role of a writer in someone else’s fantasy. Actually writing is something he does when no one else is around….

Mr. Segel’s performance, whether it captures the true Wallace or not, is sharp and sensitive, in no small part because it’s modest and appropriately evasive. The essential David Wallace is precisely what the film reminds us we can’t see, even as David Lipsky wants desperately to track him down and display him to the readers of Rolling Stone. Wallace is caught in a familiar set of contradictions. He wants attention but craves solitude. He’s willing to collaborate with the machinery of publicity even as he worries about the phoniness of it all. He’s ambitious and eager to protect himself from the consequences of his ambition. In short, he’s a famous writer.

As such he is, for his short-term companion, both alpha dog and prey, an object of envy as well as admiration, a meal ticket and an imaginary friend. The film poses the question “Who is the real David Foster Wallace?” as a feint. He is its premise, its axiom, its great white whale. The more relevant question, the moral problem on which the movie turns, is “who is David Lipsky?”

Read the whole thing, but see the movie first.