The emergence of a film about David Foster Wallace was news of staggering excitement to many ears, mine included. A biopic diving into the mind and heart of Wallace would find no shortage of material, as he was a complex and deep subject.
The End of the Tour is not a David Foster Wallace biopic, but it doesn’t attempt to be. It follows David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone writer and novelist, on his five-day meeting with Wallace during the wrapping up of his Infinite Jest book tour in 1996. The transcriptions of the conversations between the two men would, soon after Wallace’s suicide in 2008, be published in Lispky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which would then be adapted by playwright David Margulies for the screen, with Jesse Eisenberg in the role of Lipsky and Jason Segel playing Wallace.
That six degrees of separation I’ve just gone through to explain the origin of The End of the Tour is something which feels frustratingly present throughout the film: there is a large distance here between audience and subject, regardless of which subject you’re referring to. If you’re speaking of Wallace, that distance is felt instantly: the first shot we get of him consists solely of the side of his head, and we know him only by his bandanna and glasses. He is immediately presented, in an opening sequence meant to frame the whole film with the author’s death, as an Other, something enigmatic and elsewhere. The film neither looks down and judges him for his demons, nor looks up and idolizes him as many readers do, but looks at him through a thin layer of glass in what feels like an effort to observe and not disturb.
The subject is perhaps much more likely to be Lipsky, him being the one who we actually stick with throughout the movie. The issue is that we don’t really care about his portrayal here, because the film doesn’t let us: after being prodded by Wallace, he says “Aren’t I the one interviewing you?” which shuts down any meaningful delving into him by both Wallace and us. There are many glimpses of thematic material floating around conversations – conflations and implosions of the ego, measuring oneself against one’s contemporaries, the envy of fame, what literary success entails – and there are moments where the film seems to be of the belief that it’s in the process of exploring these things. But it never truly is, because we aren’t allowed to know Lipsky as a man, only as an observer. At a certain point, Wallace says that he would love to interview and profile someone who was working on a celebrity interview and profile; “Wouldn’t that be interesting?” he asks. I’m sure it would.
So what is The End of the Tour? It is somewhat compelling, particularly if you like listening to smart, witty men talk. The script is mostly plotless – although there is a clichéd third act shift toward the dramatic that just manages to feel it’s taking time away from the conversation rather than adding any desired investment – and the bookending of Wallace’s death on either side of the story does nothing but draw undeserved emotional weight from a tragedy that the film doesn’t seem willing to discuss. I was never bored, but I also never got the sensation I was in Wallace’s presence, much less his mind, and if the film was any longer I have a feeling that disappointment would have begun to sink in.
Neither of the performances feels revelatory in any way; the film does not ask that of them. You’ve seen Eisenberg play this man before, and Segel manages to steal the scenes out from under him. This is not owing to the strength of his performance (though he is good) but because you are told that he is David Foster Wallace, and for that reason alone you watch him with bated breath, hoping desperately, like Lipsky, to find the wonder that reading his prose gives you.
The End of the Tour is not a bad, or, even, mediocre movie. It’s directed with grace by James Ponsoldt, and it all flows nicely as a ride through interesting concepts with talented men. But the insights it offers can’t help but feel shallow in comparison to those offered by Wallace himself. There’s many a smart conversation to be had, complete with quotable dialogue and nice, safe cinematography. But that safety extends to the work as a whole, and it results in something that can’t help but feel a bit underwhelming, whether you’re trying to understand Lipsky or Wallace: the two men bounce off of each other here less like mirrors, which would add depth to the other’s image with every reflection of light, and more like half-invested tennis adversaries, deciding to just call it a draw when the heat and sweat becomes too much.
I will say I cried in the opening moments of The End of the Tour, as I knew I would, when Lipsky receives news of Wallace’s death. The emotion that death brings up in me has a lot to do with the intelligence of the man we lost – his wit, his humor, his awareness and abilities of observation. But it has more to do with his heart – his massive, weirdly self-conscious, compassionate, troubled heart, which drove him to relentlessly mine out the authenticity in everything he wrote about. The End of the Tour feels like a passion project, and yet it lacks this key piece of passion, this commitment to diving in and trying to get at some sort of real, soulful truth. Wallace, in other words, would want tougher questions.
The film opened BAMcinemaFest at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Following the screening, guests headed to Brooklyn Masonic Temple for the official after-party where they had amazing food and enjoyed Dark Horse wine. Star Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner, director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Donald Margulies, author David Lipsky were in attendance.