A movie about a brief and tumultuous encounter between a moderately successful writer and an altogether more established novelist may not be the most enticing premise for those whose tastes are shaped by Hollywood blockbusters, but for the brave few willing to take the risk, the rewards are almost limitless.
David Lipsky was a 30-year-old writer for Rolling Stone when he was sent to interview David Foster Wallace in early 1996; an assignment that, by all accounts, was a result of Lipsky’s enthusiastic pitch. It had been over a decade since the magazine had featured a writer on the cover and Wallace’s latest publication Infinite Jest was being heralded as the pinnacle of modern fiction; a Gen-X Ulysses of gargantuan scope and ambition.
Wallace was in the process of wrapping up an extensive promotional tour which saw him paraded and displayed in a manner which he was wholly unaccustomed to. Lipsky accompanied him for the last five days of the tour, his own trepidations at meeting this almost-mythical figure being echoed by Wallace’s complex and occasionally unpredictable demeanour. This was not a standard interview.
Over the course of their time together a tentative friendship emerges, implodes and forms once again from its remnants. Two writers, each of whom inhabits a vastly different world to the other (Wallace seeks normality, Lipsky glamour), tentatively sniffing the other out in an attempt to understand, not only their respective methodology, but also (and more significantly) the things which separate the individual from their work.
The results are impossibly endearing, within which the intricate structure of emotional and professional relationships are dissected and appraised in a manner that is normally so difficult to achieve on film. Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), utilises a screenplay by Donald Margulies (based on Lipsky’s 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself) that creates a portrait of a writer’s minor moments. Those minor moments which can later go on to form the basis of entire worlds upon the page. For the astute writer, nuances of speech and action have a resonance far greater than they might for those who are not looking for them. Wallace got that. The filmmakers get it too. Therein lies the movie’s primary strength. It’s a narrative of moments. Of said nuances which bear so much more significance in retrospect. Just like life itself.
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) gives a wonderful performance as Lipsky. An unfulfilled New York literary socialite, he approaches the Wallace interview as an explorer; committed to discovering some lost secret formula which may allow him to reach the heights and praises of his subject. Wallace is given form by the astonishing Jason Segel, whose presence and pathos are both lyrical and joyous. The somewhat hulking gait of Segel manages to accentuate the delicacy and fragility of his character. Shy and stoic, but eager to be humorous when he allows himself to be. Upon many occasions, just at the conversation is becoming lucid and warm, Wallace shuts himself off completely; either changing topic or brusquely bringing the discourse to a close. Eisenberg’s reactions to these moments are a subtle joy to behold, ranging from irritation to rejection. He walks a difficult line, for he has become endeared by his interviewee, which any worthwhile journalist will tell you, is a treacherous mire to wallow in.
David Foster Wallace is portrayed as a writer who refused to allow his fame and admiration by the literary world to comfort him. He receives no solace from the adulation which Lipsky apparently covets, leaving the latter to become even more intrigued and, upon occasion, suspicious of such declarations. The spaces they inhabit are close ones, small rooms, cars and airplane seats, making the moments of warmth all that more emotional, and the confrontations almost unwatchable in their heightened discomfort.
Lipsky’s stress levels rise at the moments when he remembers that he has to create a story from this encounter, but it’s clear that he has discovered someone with whom he feels he could be friends. The platonic male bond which every grown man desires; mutual approval, understanding and respect. Wallace clearly feels the same, but is unable to fully trust Lipsky due to the very nature of his visit. Therein lies a great tragedy; two lonely individuals who spend the majority of their time living inside their own minds, formulating words and ideas for the consumption of others. There is a common ground, but a divide which can never be breached. In one beautiful example, the pair discuss popular ‘90s singer Alanis Morissette and Wallace reluctantly admits that if he could use his fame to meet her, he would. It’s a charming moment in which his childlike insecurity and excitement shine through and within seconds it’s snatched away again as he closes himself up, retreating into his own protective steeliness.
Wallace is reticent to discuss ‘image’, especially when probed. Appalled at the idea of his bandana (a regular accessory) is thought of as an ‘affectation or a trademark’, he seems genuinely hurt by the idea that the media speculate upon his character in such a way. This escalates as Lipsky challenges Wallace’s entire social circle, accusing him of surrounding himself with people who are of a lesser intellectual capacity than himself for the purposes of maintaining his own sense of self. Equally difficult are the confrontations which occur when Lipsky brings up Wallace’s parents, his time under suicide watch or his purported substance abuse issues (a factor Lipsky’s editor emphasises as being crucial to the piece).
What this builds is a portrait of an extremely talented writer who maintained a relatively normal life because he was unable to absorb the negative attention that inevitably comes with any kind of public praise. Wallace (in this portrayal) simply wasn’t strong enough for that. In one of their closing encounters, he simply says to Lipsky: “I’m not so sure you wanna be me.” Indicating that he was aware of Lipsky’s unspoken thoughts and insecurities all along.
A subtle and understated score by Danny Elfman observes the proceedings, piping in only when it needs to. Punctuated by the occasional underground alt-rock track from the ‘80s (Felt, REM), there is a sense of sparse moroseness to the musical accompaniments which works effortlessly.
The movie opens with Lipsky reading from his own novel to an almost empty room, it concludes as he tearfully tells a packed crowd of his time with Wallace, who by this stage has passed on, dead by his own hand.
The End of the Tour celebrates the life and memory of not only a great novelist, but of the novel itself. Such a short time has passed since these event, in which the publishing industry has become a lumbering shadow of its former self. The modern novelist has been cast into the wilderness along with so many other cultural facets, the results of which are yet to be fully comprehended or felt. The world exists in a paradoxical state in which almost everyone is a writer, yet they are not celebrated, nor treated with the same respect as they were even a few short decades ago. If anyone could try and make sense of it all, it would be David Foster Wallace.