THE END OF THE TOUR: More of a Signpost than a Destination
I have been interested in the late author and philosopher David Foster Wallace since 2013, when I ran across the viral video “This Is Water” (by The Glossary) and then listened to the 2005 Kenyon commencement speech by Wallace on which it is based. Yet I have not (“yet,” so my aspirational mental note goes) read Infinite Jest or any other written work by Wallace. One reason is the length of his magnum opus, which I checked out from the local public library, only to return it unread.
I have seen “The End of the Tour” (R, A24, 2015), this year’s cinematic adaptation of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), novelist and journalist David Lipsky’s meditation on and transcript of a five-day interview of Wallace at the end of his promotional tour for Infinite Jest. Hence the title of the movie, which was directed by James Ponsoldt and stars Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky.
It is important to watch this film with the understanding that it is an overdetermined portrayal of David Foster Wallace, the person. It is an interpretation of an adaptation of a representation of Wallace. Lipsky wrote his impression of his time with the author, years after the fact and after Wallace’s death, based on tape recordings of and notes about the extended interview. He did this twice: first as an article in Rolling Stone and subsequently as a book. Screenwriter Donald Margulies then adapted the book as the script for the movie. Director Ponsoldt and Segel, in collaboration with Eisenberg and the rest of the cast, subsequently interpreted Margulies’ portrayal of Wallace as a character in his screenplay.
In other words, there is no finding the “real” Wallace in this movie (or the real anybody in any kind of text). This issue is a problem for any biopic, but particularly for this one. “The End of the Tour” solves this problem by not trying to be a biopic. It is as much a dramatic fiction as a biography. Therein lies one of the keys to its success, as I define it. It succeeded in getting me to want to dive into Wallace’s work.
Segel’s performance is another reason that the film works well for me on these terms. Segel does not try to “be” Wallace, as in method acting, but instead creates an engaging and alluring facsimile of the man, warts and all. He plays Wallace as the author described himself to Lipsky: “pleasantly unpleasant.” Although the film reveals little about Wallace’s writing, Segel presents a slice of his life in a way that seduces viewers who have a literary bent to want to know more about both the author himself and his work.
By contrast, Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lipsky presents him as “unpleasantly pleasant.” He is a jealous, lesser colleague (as a fiction writer) and a two-faced, opportunistic journalist (with a hidden agenda that Wallace rightly calls out and critiques). This combination of Hollywood stock characters overshadows the film’s presentation of the better part of Wallace and Lipsky’s brief in-person relationship: their blossoming friendship, which occasionally elevates Eisenberg’s Lipsky above his bitterness and conniving. At least one reviewer who has read Lipsky’s account of this relationship sees the film’s characterization of him as unfaithful to his portrayal of himself. As a result, I want (and plan) to read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself to learn more about Wallace and Lipsky.
Clearly, “The End of the Tour” is a movie that made me think more about its subject matter than about the film itself. One reason is that the film is not particularly remarkable in terms of filmmaking. While the cinematography and film editing are competent by Hollywood standards, there are very few shots and sequences that are cinematically impressive. These few include parts of scenes set in the rural Illinois area where Wallace lived at the time of the interview (but actually shot in Michigan).
Another reason for my renewed interest in Wallace and my newly awakened curiosity about Lipsky is wholly personal. Their extended conversations, as portrayed by Segel and Eisenberg, raise issues that are either exactly or approximately ones with which I am dealing in my own life. Despite Wallace’s desire to be seen as a regular guy, these are not problems with which everyone will resonate.
If, however, the viewer shares some common experiential ground with either Wallace or Lipsky, he or she will find this movie fascinating and feel motivated to explore its subject and story in more depth. In this way, the film is more of a signpost than a destination.