James Ponsoldt’s film ‘The End of the Tour’ is a literary gem that explores the dynamic between a brilliant writer, David Foster Wallace and a journalist David Lipsky assigned to write a profile on him for Rolling Stone. For those unfamiliar with the genius of Wallace and his 1000+ page masterpiece ‘Infinite Jest,’ may sit through this film and dismiss it as just two men doing a lot of talking. Nevertheless, the five-day interview between them reveals so much through lively conversations about writing, ambition, creativity, fame, loneliness and life itself. This is not your typical biopic because it is just as much about Lipsky as it is Wallace. Here’s a journalist that envies Wallace’s acclaim as a writer and fantasizes about being as great as the subject that he is interviewing.
When Lipsky discovers a rave review of ‘Infinite Jest’ in New York Magazine, he seems a bit jealous with all the attention Wallace is getting from literary circles. He also writes but his book ‘The Art Fair’ never reaches the monumental heights of Wallace’s groundbreaking work. The screenplay by Donald Margulies smartly focuses on their burgeoning friendship and not the work itself. Although the two men are fellow writers and spark a genuine friendship, there is always that reporter/subject dynamic every time Lipsky takes out his tape recorder. The tape recorder is intrusive and acts like a third character in the film. It reminds both of them that the purpose of being together is not really to bond over junk food in a hotel room but get the story out to the hungry public that wants to know more about Wallace. Wallace is aware of this and expresses his fear that Lipsky can shape the profile piece about him in any way he sees fit.
The story opens with Lipsky sitting with his Apple laptop in a swanky New York City apartment surrounded by books. He’s got a hip job as a journalist at Rolling Stone magazine and a hot intellectual girlfriend Sarah (Anna Chlumsky). Do you remember her in ‘My Girl’ with Macauley Culkin? The only thing missing in his life is a best-selling novel. Lipsky hears the news that Wallace has committed suicide. He makes an appearance on NPR eulogizing him and eventually breaks out the cassette tapes that act like a time machine to his pivotal road trip with Wallace back in 1996. The tapes would eventually lead to a bestseller for Lipsky titled, ‘Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace’ that would finally give him validation as a bestselling author. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance embodies the struggles a reporter faces at trying to get at the essence of the story. It’s a complex role that Eisenberg perfectly nails. He gets to interview a modern-day J.D. Salinger that has reached the pinnacle of success as an author but essentially warns him that fame is not all that it is cracked up to be.
Lipsky flies out to Bloomington, Illinois to meet with Wallace and ends up staying at his ranch-style house. The surprise is that Wallace comes off as a regular guy with two black labs and is not an intellectual snob. It’s disarming for Lipsky but the real magic begins when Wallace feels comfortable around his guest. Their friendship takes on a frat brother quality. He accompanies Wallace on the last leg of his book tour for ‘Infinite Jest’ in Minneapolis. ‘The End of the Tour’ feels like a ‘My Dinner With Andre’ for millennials. There are even groupies (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner) at the book reading. Wallace has attained rockstar status in the literary world but he rejects it. He is so humble that Lipsky is in a state of dismay. The film is at its best when the two are conversing on a wide range of topics from the addictive qualities of television to Wallace’s fantasy of meeting Alanis Morissette and eating a baloney sandwich with the singer.
Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace is a revelation. He wears the signature wire-rim glasses and bandanna but he gets at the soul of the writer. Segel is best known for his comedy roles in a slew of Judd Apatow movies as well as the teen television classic, ‘Freaks and Geeks.’ Segel isn’t just getting Wallace’s mannerisms down. He really illustrates the man’s ambivalence to fame and why he chooses to live his life as somewhat of a recluse. For instance, Wallace truly believes that the gift of a quality novel is that it alleviates another person’s loneliness. The film is peppered with spot on observations about life. When he talks about technology (remember this was 1996 before smartphones and social media), he worries that it is making it too easy for people to seek pleasure without human contact.
You don’t have to be a fan of David Foster Wallace to admire ‘The End of the Tour.’ Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) offers a poignant look at human connection that will stay with you long after you exit the movie theater. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/9Jl6qBNfQC4.