James Ponsoldt’s new film The End of the Tour flashes back before the death of David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), into the memories of David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) through Lipsky’s tape recordings of five days he spends with Wallace. Lipsky joins Wallace as he is finishing his book tour for Infinite Jest. The first image we see is of the World Trade Center. The spectre of imminent disaster hangs over Tour, the opening film of Independent Film Festival Boston 2015. This is a pre-9/11 world where the optimism of the ’90s still lingers but is starting to wane in light of an impending comedown.
Lipsky first meets Wallace in frosted-over Indiana. Earlier, calling Wallace, Lipsky is greeted with a question—How did you get my number?—and a command not to call him again. As Lipsky pulls into Wallace’s driveway, Wallace comes out to meet him, releasing his two semi-housebroken Labs and introducing himself as Dave. The earlier chill from the eventual dead man does not jibe with this large, aww-shucksing man in the Midwest. When Wallace agrees with Lipsky’s compliment of his rental ranch’s great view he adds that he cannot take credit for it. We realize that despite the inevitable tragedies that will come over the next decade there are still small joyous moments to be collected in the present.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky with a precociousness tempered by jealousy for what Wallace has. He is younger than Wallace, has written an unremarkable novel, and is toiling for Rolling Stone. Over their five days together, as Foster Wallace opens up, breaks down, and closes off only to open up once more, Lipsky begins to unpack the many facets of fame and fortune which come from writing a truly seminal work—the new expectations and responsibilities that come from success.
Jason Segel, for his part, presents a man who appreciates what has worked out for him, recognizing the skill and effort he’s put into his successes but also appreciating the random genetic fluxes that must occur in as seismic a shift as his life has taken with the publication of Infinite Jest. He struggles with the commodification of not only his work but his personal style and life. Wallace is distraught when Lipsky informs him that his bandana has become a brand signifier like the grunge flannel; it originally had been purely functional, keeping the sweat from pouring over his readings in Arizona. Realizing people are talking about his bandanas as a commodity, Wallace wants to abandon them, but that would mean letting others dictate the terms of his life.
Lipsky does not need to ask the obvious questions about mental health to Wallace. Yes, the answers are readily available throughout the film in Wallace’s jokes and the accumulating soda cans on his countertops, but they’re also evident in the extra second of a glance or a moment when eyes stay averted. Ponsoldt finds opportunities between the two Davids for his camera to hang on them and for their words to float up while their stares linger. The questions are asked, though, and the answers range from indignant rage to passive reveals. Eventually Wallace wakes Lipsky and, standing in his doorway, delivers a monologue. No more metaphors of mental health, just the confession that reducing his story to one of mental health is to let that part drive it. To keep control, Wallace can present the mental illness, but it cannot define him. It was this definition that drove him to McLean.
It is this definition that had me looking through my fingers when Lipsky stands outside hotel room 1094, knocking on Wallace’s door and thinking of “Up Simba,” in which Wallace poses “whether it’s any wonder that over half of all US suicides take place in chain hotels.” This is not a film about Wallace’s suicide. It is a platonic love story. Of course, Wallace answers the door. He does not die for over a decade. Besides, he hanged himself on his patio.
Independent Film Festival Boston ends tonight with a screening of Me And Earl and the Dying Girl at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The End of the Tour is slated for release July 31.