In true David Foster Wallace style, the ironic, meta-fictional qualities of The End of the Tour don’t remain a hall of mirrors but turn into a bridge that conveys its subject’s honest, painful humanity.
The End of the Tour, directed by James Ponsoldt. At Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and other screens around New England.
By Matt Hanson
As a diehard David Foster Wallace fan, I was very uneasy when I first heard about The End of the Tour, for both aesthetic and philosophical reasons. First, the casting seemed deeply wrong. Aside from the genuine charm of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel has never particularly wowed me as an actor, and he didn’t seem to be a worthy candidate to play a brilliant and tormented figure like Wallace.
Jesse Eisenberg as Dave Lipsky, the author of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the movie’s source text, didn’t help calm my fears. Lipsky’s slapdash memoir didn’t supply the depth of insight that should have followed spending a week with Wallace; worse, the volume took the form of a series of disconnected reporter’s notes that frustratingly didn’t cohere into anything memorable or substantial.
On a deeper level, as some critics have pointed out, the idea of a Wallace biopic is in itself deeply problematic. Wallace was a tremendous fan of movies (and wrote with particular insight about director David Lynch), but most of the time he warned against the perilous nature of over-indulging in entertainment for entertainment’s sake, especially for the sake of revelatory intimacy and the implicit promise of emotional connection. A biopic like this would necessarily have to violate this skeptical vision, at least in spirit, particularly in the morally sketchy business of marketing to a mass audience.
I shouldn’t have worried. The End of the Tour exceeded my own expectations and then some, proving to be a fitting, thoughtful tribute to Wallace as a writer and a complex human being.
Segel gives a thoughtful, detailed performance. He presents us with a sense of Wallace as a regular guy, genuinely enjoying junk food and cheesy movies. Yet he is also a man who is constantly wrestling with profoundly moral questions about the value of pleasure and authenticity at a time in history when terms like these are referred to in large quotation marks, if at all.
One of the reasons why as an author Wallace was and is so popular and respected is that his work deftly mixes registers. He was well-educated but had also been brutally instructed — via time in AA and in psyche wards for severe depression — in the limits of how far education and intellect could take you. At its best, his writing could vividly convey the clashing meanings of both high and low culture from the inside out.
Segel dramatizes this crucial dichotomy in Wallace’s style and substance. Underneath the bandanna and the shaggy locks, we sense Wallace’s powerful, nimble, and excruciatingly analytical mind at work. I have spent an unhealthy amount of time observing Wallace’s filmed interviews and was very impressed by how accurately Segel captured the man’s modest voice and subtle mannerisms, conveying earnest amiability one moment and wincing self-consciousness the next and, sometimes, both at once.
The Wallace we meet in The End of the Tour is at a crossroads, coming to grips with how the sudden glare of fame and attention can easily distort the audience’s way of reading him. He’s gnawingly afraid of being turned into a ‘celebrity’ persona not of his own choosing. Lipsky requests Rolling Stone to let him profile Wallace in 1996, relatively early in Wallace’s career, at the end of his book tour to promote the massively detailed and improbably bestselling masterpiece Infinite Jest.
It’s only natural that Wallace would be unusually anxious about how a journalist would construct the way he would be presented in a magazine profile. Lipsky and Wallace hit it off easily, bonding as only two bookish geeks can. Lipsky is initially in awe of Wallace’s success and talent, but he is still determined to pen a juicy, attention-getting story about a hot new writer. Wallace welcomes Lipsky, but also knows full well the risks inherent of opening up and disclosing sensitive details to a stranger with the power of the pen.
At times, they almost sound like characters in a David Foster Wallace story. As the plot thickens in Donald Margulies’ screenplay, we watch the two writers argue about the nature of the argument they’re having and who has the moral right to ask exactly which questions of the other. The fact that we as audience members are overhearing an argument about acceptable levels of exposure adds an ironic twist; we are watching a debate between two characters about their own motivations play out on the big screen.
Understandably, Lipsky wants to learn what makes his hero tick but can’t help but poke up against his elusive subject’s boundaries. Wallace grows increasingly concerned with Lipsky’s journalistic probing into the darker, more urgently private aspects of his non-writing life, especially in light of what he knows a scandal-hungry public yens to read about. It’s the kind of concern for authenticity through authorship that haunted Wallace throughout his career — do you want to get to the truth, or do you want to write a good story?
Wallace’s writing, especially his fiction, was always deeply concerned with how to get past the hall-of-mirrors of meta-fiction and hip, postmodern irony into a truer, deeper sense of “what it means to be a fucking human being.” In true Wallace style, the ironic, self-reflexive qualities of The End of the Tour don’t remain a hall of mirrors but turn into a bridge that conveys its subject’s honest, painful humanity. Wallace ends up revealing some parts of his personal history that Lipsky himself couldn’t publish if he wanted to — because their real meaning is beyond words.
If The End of the Tour opportunistically cashed in on the devotion of the author’s considerable fan base, the film would have been a disaster. Instead, it’s a triumph, because it takes its subject seriously enough to treat him on his own anguished, hyper-conscious terms, which is all any David Foster Wallace fan could ask for.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.