Director: James Ponsoldt
One of the chief concerns about this movie, before anyone had seen it, seemed to be the casting of Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace – it’s a non-issue, for two reasons. First of all he acquits himself just fine. Secondly, and far more importantly, it’s not really a movie about David Foster Wallace, and though it is a movie about the David Lipsky book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, based on that, taken from that, it ends up being a deeper, richer experience; it transcends its source material.
Lipsky convinced his Rolling Stone editor to send him on a road-trip to cover David Foster Wallace around the time that Infinite Jest was released and started gathering hyperbolic acclaim. The feature article never happened and when Foster Wallace committed suicide (in 2008) Lipsky returned to the tapes, transcribing them to make his book.
The dialogue was fascinating, Lipsky’s bitterness and attempts at competition palpable, Foster Wallace alternated between being calmly prescient and embarrassed by the slightest interest in his life away from what he put on the page.
It’s an odd film premise then – The End of the Tour is essentially a dialogue-heavy road-trip, in that sense it’s faithful to the way the book is structured and to how it unfolds – and perhaps even more intriguing that it really works. The film treatment is sympathetic to the aims of the text but also able to dig deeper, to find something more; to transcend the cult-status of the author that is, in theory, its subject. Put another way: you need not know anything about David Foster Wallace to enjoy this film. I say that as someone who has read most of his books and the book this film is based on. But it’s the feeling I have, David Foster Wallace here is a concept more than a person, and what’s big about this film is the concepts he tackles and talks about, a debunking, a refuting of this sad and hollow quest for fame by association or the association of fame with talent.
Jesse Eisenberg is so perfectly cast as Lipsky – right down to the fact that Eisenberg is an over-hyped and under-delivering writer in his own right. He’s also always an annoying presence in films, the shmuck with smugness. The pleased-with-himself nerd-type. Here he is perfect then, obviously.
Segel gets to underplay, where so often he’s been competing with so many other wild and wide-eyed comics, grabbing at screen time. Here he shrugs down inside of the glasses and do-rag. He doesn’t so much become Foster Wallace as he does hide inside a version of him. There are people who have denounced the film’s treatment, criticised its aims and ambitions or at least been bugged by what they deem an impersonation. I can’t speak to that. I watched this as a concept, or set of concepts, removed from the biography of David Foster Wallace. I saw this as a powerful, lightly depressing movie. Beautiful and gut-wrenching. A reminder of the toll of creativity, the panic and frustration around acceptance – the downright horror of it even. And how the alternative is no more pleasant.
Not so much a damned if you do/damned if you don’t scenario. But something close to that. This David Foster Wallace is the writer-as-character, aware that whatever version of himself he presents he’ll ultimately be represented by the journalist; a character in the feature article-as-novel. It makes for some excruciating moments of self-awareness. As well as some gentle, smart comedy.
The End of The Tour is a film I thought about for days. Yes, I went back to the David Foster Wallace books. And marvelled at so many of the sentences. Yes, I figured that people new to the name from this film would now be turning the pages for the first time. But even outside of that the film gave me more to think about than the book-version did. That makes it a triumphant success as adaptation. But also it stands – fully – on its own. No mean feat for a film that is essentially two competing and occasionally combative writers wrestling with the notion of self and self-importance and self-preservation; a dialogue-heavy road-trip that treats its audience and characters with nothing but respect, nothing close to contempt, no cynicism, no shortcuts. That it manages all of that in the Hollywood framework – big names, big production – seems to make it all the more compelling, all the more a rarity.