A new film opens a window into the innermost workings of David Foster Wallace…
by: Michael Shields
Once again, the penetrating yet confounding musings of David Foster Wallace are swimming in my mind. For an eternity after I sat down with Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest, which largely took months to read, I couldn’t rid my mind of Wallace’s insightful meditations. His novel, set in an absurd but altogether believable near-future, was rife with poignant observations on the media, addiction, family, technology, pleasure, entertainment, our national identity, and of course, tennis. Infinite Jest, coming in at just shy of 1,100 pages, is the sort of novel you have to surrender to, and once you do, the journey you are taken upon is an arduous one, but rewarding. As time flowed on, distancing me from the days I spent lost in the world of Infinite Jest, I yearned to linger in that unparalleled headspace again. To dwell a little longer in the mind of one of the most unique thinkers of our time. And thanks to the new feature film The End of the Tour, I now have the ability to enjoy that privilege once again..
The End of the Tour follows a Rolling Stone writer named David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) as he travels to Bloomington, Illinois to spend five days with David Foster Wallace (played Jason Segel) and accompany him on the final stretch of his publicity book tour for Infinite Jest. During their travels Lipsky taped nearly all their conversations as the two writers pontificated on some of the more impactful matters in life, as well as less heady fare such as the grandeur of Die Hard and the reasonings behind Wallace’s hanging of a poster of Alanis Morissette in his home. Lipsky was never able to publish an article based on his experiences with Wallace for Rolling Stone as he had intended, and his notes sat idle for twelve years. Following Wallace’s untimely death in 2008 at the age of 46, Lipsky took all the interviews he had compiled and wrote them up as a memoir entitled Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a New York Times Bestseller that thoroughly captured these moments in time. Now, this memoir has been brought to life in The End of the Tour, written by Donald Margulies and directed by the talented Jason Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed)1, and acts not only as one of the finer films to be released in 2015, but as a moving tribute to a genius taken from us far before his time.
At first glance, The End of the Tour could be viewed as a road trip film, structured within a post-mortem framing that has similar elements to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (it’s impossible to not make the comparison as both interviewers hail from the same publication). But this viewpoint is limited, and The End of the Tour breaks free from this prejudice due to the complexity of the relationship between Lipsky and Wallace. Initially, Wallace was weary of Lipsky’s intentions, and cognizant of the fallacious bonds of friendship that occur between interviewer and subject. But as the film progresses, this apprehension erodes and the conversations that define the film begin to ignite. And with both writers inherently similar with respect to their introspective viewpoints, a heightened and profound level of consideration is focused on such weighty topics as artistic dignity, success, the loneliness of writing, self-doubt, and professional envy. The back and forth is riveting and the dynamic between Lipsky and Wallace, one laced with mutual appreciation and paired uniquely with genuine envy, is revealing to what lies deep within the core of these inimitable human beings.
Lipsky catches up with Wallace at a point where the writer is skeptical about all the praise and attention being showered upon him because of Infinite Jest, and this is where the film succeeds in granting the viewer, and the die-hard David Foster Wallace fans, an intimate glimpse into the motivations of the famed writer. Not only are viewers entrusted with terrific insight into how Wallace views the world around him, but Donald Margulies’ screenplay, like Lipsky’s memoir, doesn’t shy away from Wallace’s imperfections, and it is these blemishes which make Wallace approachable, somewhat understandable, and even more interesting than we ever could have imagined.
It is not going too far to state that The End of the Tour marks the start of the Oscar race, with Jason Segel the centerpiece of this film and a virtual shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination. His performance was perfectly nuanced, precisely understated and a perfect ode to the unique personality of the rare soul he was portraying. It’s an about face for an actor known for his comedic roles in films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppet Movie and I Love You Man, and it is evident that Segel approached his portrayal of Wallace with grace and humility. In finding a way to humanize such a controversial and complex individual, Segel’s range appears to be broader than critics and fans had ever imagined. Playing Wallace as detached, calculated, and burdened, Segel never allows the author to be easily pinned down and defined, because there is no question that David Foster Wallace was a puzzle that will never be entirely solved, and in not attempting to, Segel allows Wallace to remain that lovable anomaly who rocked the Literary world.
The chemistry between Segel and Jesse Eisenberg is palpable, and reason alone to see this film. Segel recently described Eisenberg as the “most prepared actor he has ever worked with,” and the duo’s onscreen charisma is both fierce and comical. Segel’s Wallace towers over Eisenberg’s wiry and neurotic Lipsky, but somehow never intimidates. Eisenberg’s eyes remain fixed and observing throughout the film, walking a fine line between being opportunistic and caring. Segel and Eisenberg’s exchanges are sharp yet free. Daring but concise. And although the film focuses chiefly on the two writers (with a few scene-stealing moments from the always wonderful Joan Cusack), it is all the better for it, as the film flourishes when the lines between friendship and responsibility begin to blur and the character’s true motivations are tested, exposing both Lipsky and Wallace as vulnerable, and spectacularly human.
Having spent a great deal of time with Lipsky’s memoir, I am amazed at the amount of revelatory, comical, and intriguing moments that found their way from page to screen. So many of the touching moments shared between Lipsky and Wallace, as well as those times that hinted at a deeper turmoil bubbling within Wallace, are present and accounted for in The End of the Tour. While you don’t have to know a thing about David Foster Wallace or Infinite Jest to fall in love with The End of The Tour, those that have been affected deeply by Wallace’s words will relish in the opportunity to come to a better understanding of the perplexing loneliness and self-doubt that ultimately got the best of him. And anyone, not just those infatuated with Wallace, will cherish the complicated yet authentic friendship that is at the core of The End of The Tour, a film that is at its best when it draws you into the dynamic connection between two extraordinary people, a friendship forged by reflective individuals who took the time to truly understand one another.
The End of the Tour opens in NYC and LA this weekend, and hits theaters nationwide August 14th.
- Music by Danny Elfman and produced by Matt DeRoss and James Dahl. [↩]