Observant, probing, poignant, and thought-provoking, The End of the Tour is a hipster road trip bromance that addresses perplexing themes for our times; a wise and wacky cautionary tale about a cultural titan and the reporter trailing in his wake; and an illuminating exposé about the nebulous relationship between interviewer and subject. Wonderfully performed and filled with dexterous repartee, it’s a true Sundance gem.
David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is skeptical and awestruck when he hears the acclamation for the 1996 release of Infinite Jest, a 1,079 page, “colossally disruptive,” totemic novel about tennis, addiction, rehab, and Quebec separatism. He persuades his editor (Ron Livingston, Drinking Buddies, The Conjuring) to assign Lipsky to interview him. What he finds in Illinois is the unassuming, amiable, guarded David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), who accompanies Lipsky on a licorice- and M&M-fueled expedition during which they discuss everything from dogs and television to self-identity.
Eisenberg is unsurprisingly effective, unsurprising not only because he’s proven his capabilities in The Squid and the Whale and The Social Network, but also because his best character creations are hate-inspiring, quite similar to the one he plays as the mercenary, envious, and overcompensating Lipsky. All of the typical Eisenberg flourishes – the awkward pausing, the facial tics, the stilted phrasing – are present and accounted for, though put to a different use as a Rolling Stone journalist than as the world-conquering founder of Facebook.
Segel has the harder role and a rather gargantuan task of leaving behind the stoner slacker comedian seen in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man. He brings that one-on-one dynamic into a new setting and redefines himself as an introspective, shy egomaniac who is lonely, depressed, misunderstood, and beyond brilliant. While it remains a long shot, he would be well deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) takes a bold, or at least more unpredictable, approach to the story: he chooses to centre it around Lipsky instead of Wallace, despite both Ponsoldt’s and writer James Margulies’ publicized affectation for the esteemed author. Regrettably, it leaves Wallace as an enigma, and the attempt not to explore the inner workings of the film’s muse feels like a lost opportunity. (Being not about Wallace allows one to ignore his tragic end; writes Lipsky, “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning.”)
Nevertheless, that slipperiness pays tribute to the inevitable contradictions of a man ambitious and evasive, famous and terrified of the phoniness of fame. The End of the Tour is not about the greatness of Wallace; it is about the mediocrity of Lipsky. In doing so, it sidesteps the challenge of living up to the standards of Infinite Jest and investigates some fascinating questions: what does it mean to live in the shadow of someone with infinitely superior talent? How can an artistic perfectionist like Lipsky be satisfied with even modest success when geniuses like Wallace or Thomas Pynchon or Alice Munro have such intimidating stature in our modern literary world?
Margulies, a professor of English at Yale and an American playwright with 11 works to his name, including the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner with Friends,” enters the feature film arena by adapting Lipsky’s memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace into a kind of chamber piece. (He has also adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex into an HBO miniseries that’s still in development.)
His screenplay, which appeared on the 2013 Black List, is a bit free-wheeling and not as chiseled as the greatest films about writers (see: Barton Fink, Adaptation), but it’s crammed with authentic, semi-profound insights on isolation, pleasure, and finding a meaningful path in life (“I don’t think writers are smarter than other people. I think they are maybe more compelling in their stupidity”), as well as some amusing lines of dialogue (Wallace remarks that he and Lipsky are on “a hypothermia smoking tour of the US”).
No matter the Salieri parallels or sympathetic renderings, The End of the Tour is no Amadeus. It’s not as breathtakingly terse as All the President’s Men, and not nearly as charming as its Rolling Stone reporter/road trip cousin, Almost Famous. Yet there are small moments and short conversations that are downright scathing in their discernment: Lipsky’s seduction with Wallace reaches quasi-culmination when he openly flirts with Wallace’s ex-girlfriend only a few steps from where he is sitting, and then denies that he did so.
Ponsoldt, who put Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Shailene Woodley on the map in his debut and sophomore features, has given Segel a showcase worth checking out as soon as possible. It will likely be remembered in a few years as the turning point in his career. And who knows – the same thing may be said about The End of the Tour and its director. One thing is certain: if you haven’t yet read David Foster Wallace, there’s no time like the present.