The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring: Jason Segel
and Jesse Eisenberg
Rated R for language including some sexual references
1 hr. 46 min.
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, the Western World lost one of its most profoundly talented writers to have contributed to literature since Shakespeare. Wallace had a near-unique insight into the thoughts and feelings that come with being human, and his abilities to empathize and elicit empathy made him alluring and deeply vulnerable. He would undoubtedly be completely embarrassed by the rock star-like canonization that his work has undergone, especially because of our tendency to idolize self-destructive artists. But James Ponsoldt’s (The Spectacular Now) film about a small portion of Wallace’s life — the end of the book tour for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, filtered through the perspective of a Rolling Stone magazine writer/interviewer — presents Wallace as the flawed, self-critical person he was. As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that accuracy to either the subject or source material has absolutely no place in the discussion of The End of the Tour. Fans of Wallace will find plenty to love while watching, but every person ought to see The End of the Tour for its incredible understanding of how difficult it is to live in this world.
The End of the Tour follows Wallace (Jason Segel) and David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) into cars, diners, hotel rooms and bookstores as Lipsky records their conversations to get material for an article about the novetlist. Both characters are awkward around each other and as themselves, but each has much to teach the other. Lipsky, an amateur fiction writer at the time, is attracted to the kind of person Wallace is, and begins to look at him as a goal — something to aspire to and emulate. Wallace is constantly walking on eggshells, trying to express himself clearly so that he is not misunderstood in his intentions as an artist. Segel is totally unrecognizable, and even though Eisenberg’s take on Lipsky is similar to some of the actor’s other roles, he matches the brooding power of his on-screen partner. Much like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, The End of the Tour plays out like a long discussion-debate, so viewers who like seeing movies where “stuff happens” should prepare for a more active viewing experience.
This, of course, is what makes Wallace and his work so important — the effort put into it by the audience parallels what the audience gets out of it. So, while there is both crass and clever humor sprinkled throughout The End of the Tour, the film challenges viewers to confront their own insecurities and ugliness. It would be easy for a certain kind of person to see the movie as self-absorbed intellectualizing, but that is likely a result of the cultural distraction that both Wallace and the script lament — that the remarkable efficiency of modern technology has made the consumer more entitled and lazy. These ideas seem to clash with one of the unfortunate but pervasive beliefs about going to see a movie: It is good to escape into another world. Thankfully, The End of the Tour pays real tribute to the spirit of Wallace’s writing by refusing to indulge the passive viewer. Overcoming that hurdle pays dividends because the film has so much to offer on the subject of loneliness. Where many stories would avoid that subject or resolve it too conveniently, The End of the Tour acknowledges how lonely being alive really is and emphasizes awareness as the first step toward the connection that might help people deal with loneliness. On paper, it sounds like small game, but the themes and conflicts in The End of the Tour are as big as they come, and the script does them justice and then some. Writers similar to Wallace, who could connect with people so thoroughly, are extremely rare. They are innovative, instructive and surprising in ways that make the world around them better. The End of the Tour lives up to those qualities. There has not been a better reason to see a film this year.