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Review: The End of the Tour (2015)

The End of the Tour (2015)

Directed by: James Pondsoldt

Premise: Based on the book by David Lipsky. Set in 1996, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) tags along with novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) for the last few dates of his book tour for Infinite Jest.

What Works: David Foster Wallace has become a cult figure in part because of his novel Infinite Jest but also because of his peculiar habits and eccentricities. Most people working in any kind of art form, whether it’s music or film or literature, entertain daydreams of fame and fortune. Most of us know that’s unlikely to happen but we indulge ourselves anyway. Wallace was unique in that he wrote a book that achieved the success that many writers dream of and yet he was reluctant to embrace fame. That and Wallace’s smart and countercultural style made him a literary folk hero. The End of the Tour is about journalist David Lipsky’s attempt to understand Wallace and the movie is an intelligent and nuanced take on the writer but also a dramatic story of journalistic ethics and the tension between nonfiction writers and their subjects. Lipsky champions Wallace’s work but his enthusiasm is met with ambivalence by his editors who want drama and scandal in a story where there may not be any. That requires Lipsky to push Wallace to disclose things he’s not especially willing to talk about and the film has an interesting tension between Lipsky’s need for information and Wallace’s unwillingness to play into the media’s stock narrative of the tortured writer. That’s another interesting aspect of The End of the Tour; as he is depicted here, Wallace recognized that fame can take someone or something that is authentic and organic and turn it into a plastic imitation that’s more sellable to a mass audience. Wallace’s resistance to fame was an attempt to hold onto his identity and integrity and for as much time as Lipsky spends with him, Wallace remains an enigma. Far from the stereotype of the eccentric genius, The End of the Tour suggests that artistic greatness might itself be mundane. The movie features a pair of terrific central performances. Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace and he is the right combination of likable everyman and imposing authorial heavyweight. Jesse Eisenberg is David Lipsky and he is also quite good, conveying the tension between the journalist’s mission and his desire to make a friend of Wallace and Eisenberg also captures the self-consciousness that creative people feel when they’re faced with a better writer.

What Doesn’t: One of the popular criticisms of The End of the Tour is that David Foster Wallace would have hated the film. Based on his portrayal, he probably would have hated it but not because the movie is unflattering or poorly made. Wallace valued his privacy and resisted fame. Turning his life into a feature film in which he and David Lipsky are played by movie stars is antithetical to his wishes. But that said, the fact that Wallace would not have wanted his life turned into a movie doesn’t mean that The End of the Tour shouldn’t exist. Wallace was a public figure who published a book that’s considered by some to be the great American novel of its era and those accolades come with some forfeiture of privacy. The story of The End of the Tour is structured as a frame narrative. The movie begins with Lipsky finding out that Wallace has committed suicide and then the story jumps backward in time to recall the events that make up the bulk of the movie. The picture doesn’t necessarily need the frame structure. The End of the Tour is primarily about the tensions between the two writers and Lipsky’s foiled attempts to dissect and categorize Wallace and his work. The awareness of Wallace’s death do add some subtext to the film but The End of the Tour would probably play just as well without it.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: The End of the Tour has the curious quality of making David Foster Wallace more accessible while maintaining his mystery. It is a smart and subtle movie that features impressive performances by Jason Segel and Jessie Eisenberg.

Episode: #580 (January 31, 2016)