By Kyle G. King. The late, great David Foster Wallace was an enigma exceedingly concerned with the notion of his own authenticity, and his fans were (and still remain) agog to what exactly made him such a profound voice of his generation. In the mid-nineties, when David Lipsky–a young reporter at Rolling Stone magazine–pitched to cover Wallace during his Infinite Jest book tour, he too had caught that Wallace-bug of curiosity. That five-day jaunt of Lipsky and Wallace’s road trip — and the spiraling conversations between two writers obsessed with the notion of genius — are the setting and subject of James Ponsoldt’s latest film, The End of The Tour. But those still in search of the “authentic” David Foster Wallace might leave the theater more lost than before.
Sitting in a truck-stop diner after having just met, Wallace (Jason Segel in a great bid as a dramatic lead) looks across the table to Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and says, “I would love to do a profile on one of you guys who’s doing a profile on me.” While Lipsky immediately agrees the premise is “interesting”, neither can fully realize the next five days of their time together (and the bulk of the movie) shapes up to be exactly that: each man trying to constantly figure the other out, both superficially and earnestly. Lipsky, a published fiction writer himself (albeit a far less celebrated one), prods Wallace in an attempt to shake loose and harness what makes Wallace the visionary he’s regarded as, all while simultaneously dealing with the pressure to “get the story”. But Wallace grows more and more suspicious over what Lipsky is after specifically, and how it will reflect on his own public persona. Their two great egos engage in a state-spanning battle, the Olympic Gold Medal equivalent to overheard coffee-shop conversations of two bragging MFA writers.
Screenwriter Donald Margulies, and the film’s two leads, use these long-winded tête-à-tête’s to craft complicated personas of their characters, while Ponsoldt ensures the story remains staunchly filtered through Lipsky’s perspective. The real Lipsky’s chronicles of the tour were fictionalized for the film script, meaning the David Foster Wallace on screen is only a distillation of what he presented to Lipsky, and how Lipsky interpreted it (Wallace further eludes his own authenticity). Lipsky’s wrestling to understand Wallace (familiar within Eisenberg’s nebbishy intellectual wheelhouse) is a surrogate struggle for any moviegoer attending The End of Tour for the same reason. Its layering of crafted vs. genuine personalities truly runs deep.
This tilting of perspective away from Wallace not only skews the movie away from explorating his work, but it redirects the focus onto far broader conversations; themes like ego, loneliness, American values, and addiction that span Wallace’s Infinite Jest. While the trailer might falsely advertise a biopic of the man — attracting only DFW fandom and the hyper-intellectual — the content within The End of Tour should appeal to a much wider group of people (if they somehow find themselves there). As the pair’s chit-chat grows less professional and more competetive, the two men occasionally let down their guard in either remembering or forgetting the tape recorder (serving as a great cinematic prop). Egos are exposed, and the purist concern of staying “true to Wallace” eventually becomes a non-issue.
The pair’s anti-bromance pissing contests range from their respective writing careers to their alpha-male romantic statuses. Between calls to girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, constantly trying to pay for the other with their respective expense accounts, and a small tug between getting the say on book cover illustrations, their shared insecurity defense mechanisms of acting overly secure is brought up in soft comedy and real drama. Jason Segel is both fierce and warm, while cerebrally cutting through the differences, even through the caricature/costuming that is the real David Foster Wallace. But as the complicated layering of his character–and the film as a whole–builds up, it’s tough to grasp and even tougher to see within his performance.
Stay through the credits to see a cute, self-aware nod to the fact that the public might never know “the real David Foster Wallace”. But if Lipsky’s suggestion rings true, there might still be hope for us reaching for the late writer’s divine dogma: “If they’re responding to your work and your work is really personal then reading you is another way of meeting you.”