“The end of the tour” is a phrase with a portentous, elegiac ring. It might refer to the end of a campaign, the end of an era, the end of a term, the end of the line. In this case it refers to the end of a series of readings and interviews conducted to promote a novel. But it can’t help but mean all of those other things as well. James Ponsoldt’s new film, The End of the Tour, whatever else it is, is a terrifically moving valediction to David Foster Wallace, a writer celebrated by many as the most gifted of his generation, who committed suicide in 2008.
In 1996, when the film is set, Wallace had just published his second novel, the 1,000+ page Infinite Jest, for which he was in the process — a process he considered highly dubious and potentially damaging — of being anointed as Gen X’s representative in the pantheon of canonical American writers. He lived alone with his dogs in rural Illinois and taught creative writing at the local university.
David Lipsky, then a Rolling Stone journalist — who also happened to be a competing,unsung novelist and envious contemporary — first experienced Wallace’s apotheosis via ecstatic press reviews (Walter Kirn’s piece in New York magazine proclaiming the year’s literary awards all but sewn up receives special attention here). When the wave of raving word of mouth washes over the insular, book-mad subculture he inhabits in lower Manhattan, finally reaching (ravishing?) his live-in girlfriend, Lipsky decides he’d better read the damn thing. “Shit,” he mutters from the bed he reads it in, neatly encapsulating his grudging admiration and bruised ego; it’s as good as he feared. Feeling he has to meet this guy, to measure himself against him man to man, he talks his editor into flying him out to join Wallace during the last leg of his book tour, after which he’ll write up a profile of the novelist for Rolling Stone.
The set-up derives pretty straightforwardly from Lipsky’s book about the experience, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), published soon after Wallace’s suicide. Director Ponsoldt’s take on the material is determined to an exceptional extent by his casting decisions: in the lead roles, Jason Segel, as David Foster Wallace, and, even more so, Jesse Eisenberg, as David Lipsky, are on the screen constantly. The movie consists, ultimately, of nothing more or less than their conversation, as recorded and remembered by Lipsky, and as reimagined by Ponsoldt and his actors. Their performances, even more than is typically the case, are decisive.
So what of them? Casting Eisenberg as Lipsky was perhaps both too obvious and too telegraphic: the actor’s catalog of tics and twitches arrives on the screen conveniently pre-read as hyper-self-conscious, prickly and insecure. I’m not sure if Lipsky was intended to come across this unlikeably — perhaps he scans just the same in his own book on the subject, not to mention real life — but I found that it occasionally unbalanced the action, stacking the deck against him even when Wallace is being unreasonable, as when he berates Lipsky for flirting with his old grad-school girlfriend.
Jason Segel, on the other hand, for all his gargantuan, gangling goofiness, is a marvel of mimicry, matching his model’s gift for same by convincingly recreating Wallace’s loping loquacity, his charming but crippling oscillation between shyness and exhibition, and the deceptive fragility of his brainiac everyman manner. The compromise Wallace sought both to strike and to avoid striking between integrity and popularity, between participation in the world’s “illusions” and a principled retreat therefrom, weighs on him in ways difficult to comprehend for Lipsky, who sees only a very fortunate writer, a mere handful of years older than himself, who’s been catapulted to fame and acclaim while his own novel is ignored and remaindered.
Navigating those fragilities and pressure-points as they play out in an absorbing, evasive exchange between two ambitious, ambivalent personalities, is the tour. We know how it ended for Wallace, but the film, which is also (inevitably) about addiction, depression and suicide, neither valorizes nor condemns the conclusion he chose. The End of the Tour honors the difficult realities of despair’s persistence without explaining or wishing them away. In this it is of a piece with Ponsoldt’s previous two films, Smashed (2012) and The Spectacular Now (2014), both of which addressed some of the same issues, doing so with great conviction, zero didacticism, and, in the latter film especially, high entertainment value. Alcoholism runs through all three films, but it’s never handled in exactly the same way, just as it is never experienced in exactly the same way. In DFW’s understanding, as expressed in the film, the heavy drinking that marked his late 20s was only one manifestation (10-mile runs were another one, gulp) of his “very American” compulsion to try to “fix” his depression via the application of extreme methods. That writing a 1,000+ page novel might serve the same purpose is, perhaps wisely, left unsaid. I’ll go ahead and say it anyway.
For all its potential pitfalls — shallowness, the romantic glorification of doomed genius, Lipsky’s arguably distasteful and self-serving careerism — The End of the Tour is a rare triumph of its type, a literary biopic that brings us closer to its subject while leaving its mysteries essentially intact, one that implicitly acknowledges that what really matters about a writer — this writer, at least — is the writing. Our knowing him is possible, in so far as such things are ever possible, only by reading him. Whether that or anything else could ever help me understand Wallace’s Alanis Morissette fixation is another matter, likely to forever remain as unsettled as it is unsettling.
Now playing in theaters more or less everywhere.