If you’re a writer the odds are against you regarding ever achieving success. Most of us are fated to toil in relative anonymity, while our creative output is stymied by the fiscal need to work a day job. That’s why the new film about David Foster Wallace (played by a revelatory Jason Segel), and the publication of his mega-novel Infinite Jest, is so terrifyingly interesting. Quite simply, it presents a writer’s worst nightmare, where fame and fortune have been achieved yet emptiness remains.
Aptly titled, The End of the Tour covers the last five days of Wallace’s 1996, Infinite Jest book tour, where he was accompanied by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). Slim in terms of story, and directed with a utilitarian style, The End of the Tour’s power is derived almost entirely from its richly-textured characters. Both Segel’s Wallace and Eisenberg’s Lipsky are intense, colorful personalities, and their combustible and fascinating interactions (supported by Donald Margulies script) turn the film into one of the year’s most memorable.
Although Wallace’s larger than life persona looms over The End of the Tour, the main character of the story is ostensibly Eisenberg’s journalist. In the beginning of the film his Lipsky is a proverbial sad sack, seemingly incapable of finding fulfillment in either his professional or personal life. He lives with his girlfriend, yet their interactions appear strained and rather cold. He has also just published a novel of his own, called The Art Fair, which the film depicts as having received a rather tepid reaction (which was hardly the case in real life).
He also possesses a complex relationship to the work of David Foster Wallace, born through his exposure to Infinite Jest. Enlivened by what appears to be a mixture of reverential awe and seething jealousy, he convinces his superiors at his day job (Rolling Stone) to dispatch him to interview the iconoclastic author. This leads him to the snowy tundra of Illinois and into a confrontation with Wallace’s brilliant albeit tortured soul.
Thus begins the marathon interview between two distinct writers and men. This section also represents the moment where the film either sinks or swims. There are two main hurdles here that The End of the Tour is forced to confront. First, the story becomes incredibly intimate, with most scenes largely consisting of the two actors speaking in a number of unremarkable locations. Second, the film flirts dangerously with descending to the cliched sphere typically occupied by biopics focusing on troubled geniuses.
The End of the Tour effortlessly avoids such pitfalls, which is due to two factors: the script and the acting. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the directorial hand of filmmaker James Ponsoldt (who helmed the “meh” Miles Teller vehicle The Spectacular Now), there also isn’t anything enormously distinctive. The film does feature an elegant and nimble pace, yet it’s hard to tell if the director deserves any real credit for this or if it can be mostly attributed to editor Darren Navarro.
Perhaps more indicative of Ponsoldt’s influence are the scene locations and shot choices. There are a few images that are striking in their overwhelming banality. One in particular, which consists of a car (containing Wallace and Lipsky) driving down a road that is flanked by loathsome fast food joints, leaps out, connecting viewers to the questions posed by Wallace regarding how humans choose to seek pleasure and happiness. Additionally, the director can probably be credited for how marvelously unsexy the book tour appears in the film. While this may seem rather inconsequential, it plays a major part in helping to understand the grim loneliness Wallace associates with the experience.
Mostly though the film is powered by the interplay of the two actors, who both bring a subtle, multifaceted quality to their performances, and who both perfectly balance their characters’ dark and light shades. After years of playing affable doofuses with hearts of at least fools gold, Jason Segel’s turn as Wallace is indeed worthy of the superlatives that have been heaped upon it. Simultaneously imbuing the character with charisma and social ineptitude, his work in The End of the Tour is an unshowy work of showmanship. Without question there are a number of “actorly” qualities to the performance. Not only did Segel change his weight and ape Wallace’s long, stringy hair, perpetual scruff, and trademark bandanna, but his voice is audibly different, possessing a cadence missing from his earlier work.
Yet, underneath all of these visual ticks and quirks, Segel successfully captures something else: the soul of a deeply burdened man. Who is to say how closely aligned his performance is with the real Wallace, yet it is enormously communicative about some very complex themes.
Through Segel, Donald Margulies’s words find a perfect conduit, a voice in which to parse the thorny underbelly of success. Unlike many cinematic protagonists, who almost mindlessly begin to self-destruct once the acquire their goal, the Wallace seen in The End of the Tour is so interesting because he is clearly aware of and clearly struggling against that very human tendency. The writer possesses ample self-knowledge, not to mention a shrewdly analytic understanding of the human condition. Segel’s wonderful performance captures all of this, suggesting in nearly every scene a stormy web of conflicted feelings. He powerfully evokes the idea of a man who has achieved greatness yet is somewhat horrified by it.
The actor finds a strong foil in Jesse Eisenberg’s characterization of David Lipsky. Having long ago cemented himself as the thinking man’s Michael Cera, Eisenberg naturally nebbish qualities are harnessed beautifully for this particular story. Although maybe overpowered by the presence of Segel’s Wallace, his Lipsky is an equally complex performance. Eisenberg is able to bring a raging darkness to the character, one that thrashes just underneath a persona of gawky graciousness. One gets the impression that Lipsky can’t decide if he wants to worship Wallace or jealously murder him. Eisenberg has mined such darkness before, particularly in his Oscar-nominated role in The Social Network, yet he is even better here, possessing more intense and layered contradictions.
With such an effective pairing of characters and actors it isn’t really a surprise that The End of the Tour remains hypnotic throughout, despite it largely consisting of just two guys talking about life. But maybe that’s also because scripter Margulies takes the conversation into such engaging places, and never lets viewers forget that these are two formidable men bringing their own agendas to the table.
I should mention that the script is certainly not perfect, and in its zeal to explore Wallace’s psyche (and really the totality of the creative experience) it’s even abrasively didactic at points. Yet, the conclusions it draws are remarkable, and not just about Wallace, Lipsky or the act of writing in general. Instead, The End of the Tour is an entertaining and intelligent look at something more universal, about how professional success and public adoration are nice but they aren’t real, and ultimately they won’t last. In the end you still have to live with yourself.