The End of The Tour may be about David Foster Wallace, but James Ponsoldt's (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) new film can't be called a biopic. Its scope is more concentrated than that: a chronicle of a five-day interview between David Foster Wallace and reporter David Lipsky, on the final stop of his book tour for Infinite Jest. (Along with Selma, it makes one hopeful for a new, more considered class of biopic, in which the screenwriter doesn't feel the need to tell their subject's life story in order to relay what was remarkable about him or her.)
I left The End of the Tour feeling twin convictions far stronger than I usually have as the credits roll on a film. One: as Wallace, Jason Segel is really wonderful; sensitive and subtle, a pleasant surprise after the somewhat wince-inducing paparazzi photos of him on set in full bandana-and-wire-rim cosplay regalia that made the internet rounds last year. Two: I want to strangle Jesse Eisenberg. Or David Lipsky. Or Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of David Lipsky. The layers of adaptation and subjectivity make this conveniently murky, so if you're reading this, guys, bear in mind: I'm talking about a movie. A narrative movie based on book based on a would-be magazine story. Don't take it too personally. Unless I'm right.
The fundamentally unnatural human interaction that is the profile interview
Eisenberg plays Lipsky, a then-Rolling Stone reporter who would go on to write Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, an account of the interview he conducted in 1998 for a never-published profile of Wallace. The film is more or less an adaptation of that book. But moreso than a portrait of Wallace, The End of the Tour ends up being an investigation of the fundamentally unnatural human interaction that is the profile interview. The film, which is almost entirely a dialogue between Segel's Wallace and Eisenberg's Lipsky, paints the interview — because that's what it was and never ceased to be, no matter how intimate and charged their conversation becomes — as a kind of foreign invasion. And like any occupying force, Lipsky arrives with a set of preconceived notions about his host and how best to take advantage of him.
In the post-film Q&A Pondsoldt spoke highly of Lipsky's book (which I have not read) and Lipsky himself, so I am led to believe that the overwhelming loathing I felt for Eisenberg's portrayal of the author was not intentional. That does not make the film any less of an accomplishment, or any less thought-provoking. And of course, many of Lipsky's flaws and insecurities are vital to the storyline; we meet him at the underpopulated reading for his first book and it is writ large that he takes on the Wallace profile with his struggling writer baggage fully in tow. But I suspect we're also supposed to identify with him to a degree, if as nothing else than as a DFW fanboy. By the time he returns to New York from the snowy anonymity of Bloomington, Illinois one doesn't get the sense that he would have conducted himself any differently during his time with Wallace. In a way, he has reconciled his feelings of insufficiency in the towering shadow of Wallace by making his five days with him a part of his own identity.
A kind of literary Talented Mr. Ripley
Viewed this way (which, again, I am not sure was Ponsoldt's intention, or the critical consensus here at Sundance,) The End of the Tour then plays out like a kind of literary The Talented Mr. Ripley. And in the face of Lipsky's insatiability, the Segel can't help but portray Wallace as constantly on the defensive, protecting nothing less than his own interiority. This, perhaps in combination with the nature of the source material, paints an even more saintly, beleaguered picture of Wallace than a conventional Oscar-bait biopic would. The film is bookended by flash forwards after Wallace's death by suicide in 2008: we see Lipsky eulogize Wallace on NPR and at a (much better attended) reading of Although Of Course..., and these are his final acts of consumption and assumption of his subject. After his death, Lipsky becomes the foremost authority on Wallace, which is almost as good as being Wallace.
Lipsky becomes the foremost authority on Wallace, which is almost as good as being Wallace
But as if to underscore the folly of this, Ponsoldt pairs the reading from Lipsky's book with a gauzy, ecstatic final image of Wallace dancing at the Baptist church — the dance he had told Lipsky he'd be headed after they parted ways; a moment Lipsky was not there for, armed with his ever-present with tape recorder and notepad. It's a reminder that a personality can never be fully captured in five days, or one film; certainly not one as huge as Wallace's. It's hopeful — that perhaps David Foster Wallace found some moments to be just Dave, away from interviewers and sycophants, even before his tragic death. We know this story doesn't have a happy ending, but it's some comfort to think that there were moments of peace somewhere in the middle.