In 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent five days traveling with and interviewing novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) during a book tour for his groundbreaking Infinite Jest. During that time, Wallace opened up to Lipsky, telling the writer many of his inner thoughts, fears and feelings at “The End of the Tour.”
I knew of David Foster Wallace through a vain attempt to read one of his essays and the daunting 1000+ page Infinite Jest which sits, unread by me, on our bookshelf. So, I went in to “The End of the Tour” with the mind of the innocent. Director James Ponsoldt, who helmed the critically acclaimed YA film “Spectacular Now (2013),” changes gears with the biographical interview of the man who many acclaim as one of the great writers of the 20th Century.
“The End of the Tours” is a linear telling of the intensive five day interview by Lipsky at the home and on the tour with his subject Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg, as expected, gives a grounded performance as the journalist who made the long journey to deep freeze Illinois to record his interview with the reclusive author. The wonderful surprise of the film is Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace. The actor does comedy well, but here he is given a character of depth, nuance, anxiety and humor and he shines as the highly intelligent bundle of anxieties, emotions and insecurities.
Ponsoldt has a pair of fascinating characters and brings us up close to them in the confines of Wallace’s cluttered home and the front seat of a car as the pair travel on the five day book tour.
Cinematographer Jacob Ihre gives the film the appropriate blue and gray hues to lend the mood to the wintery locale. His cameras work up close with the actors and the effect is to put the viewer in the thick of the intelligent, cerebral dialog. It is the next best thing to actually being there.
“The End of the Tour” may center on its two main characters but the background players, however briefly used, help to open the world as Wallace reluctantly comes out of his solitary existence to promote his novel. Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Ron Livingston and Mickey Sumner add depth to the story, even if all of their roles are near cameos in their time on screen.
I may never read Infinite Jest but I am glad the filmmakers brought me into the life, however briefly, of a true American genius. I give it a B+.
In 2008, Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) receives a phone call from a friend, inquiring about the unconfirmed death of author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). Lipsky immediately calls an Internet prank, but he also anxiously gets online, stunned to see rumor made news. Twelve years earlier as a newly published author, Lipsky pitched his editor (Ron Livingston) on taking a chance on a feature story on a writer, one who had astonished him with the recently published 'Infinite Jest.' Given the green light, Lipsky traveled from New York to America's heartland to join Wallace for "The End of the Tour."
Like an energetic terrier and a cautious Great Dane sussing each other up, Eisenberg and Segel are an unlikely yet perfect pairing in director James Ponsoldt's ("Smashed," "The Spectacular Now") dual character study, one which plays like the road trip version of "My Dinner with Andre." Donald Margulies' adaptation of Lipsky's book version of the Rolling Stone article (which was never published) is a study in jealousy, admiration and analysis between two writers, each facing crippling self doubt, each sensing possible friendship within the minefield of a professional media relationship.
Still on a high from the his publication of his first novel, 'The Art Fair,' Lipsky is incredulous as he reads a New York Magazine review of 'Infinite Jest,' one which proclaims the competition obliterated. Then he reads the book, envy giving way to reverence (Eisenberg, who hasn't been this compelling since "The Social Network," signals this transition almost entirely nonverbally). His first direct communication with Wallace is on the phone, Lipsky lost driving through flat wintery terrain on his way from the airport. It establishes the parries and thrusts involved in getting anything from the newly celebrated author, Wallace demanding first how Lipsky got his number, then giving him directions with the admonition to lose it. Lipsky's quite nervous about meeting him and is delighted to see the bearish, hulking, bandana'ed man who emerges from a simple ranch home, two black labs bounding by his side.
Over the course of five days, Lipsky will be invited to stay at Wallace's home (in a room dwarfed by towering stacks of books), attend one of Wallace's writing classes at Illinois State, and accompany him to Minneapolis, the last stop of a book tour where they are shepherded around by Patty (Joan Cusack) and meet up with Dave's ex Betsy (Mickey Sumner, "Frances Ha") and book industry fan Julie (Mamie Gummer, TV's 'Extant'). When Patty asks them how they wish to spend some down time, they don't opt for the Mary Tyler Moore statue, but the Mall of America, a fitting choice for the man whose essays got to the core of collective American pastimes. The changing scenery presents a visual representation of Wallace's life at the time, but it is the constant conversation which fascinates, Dave always chewing over the pitfalls of selling out, trading on his fame, giving in to pleasures which he foresees technology making ever more abundant. Tasked by his editor with addressing Wallace's rumored heroin use, Lipsky sidesteps and is astonished when the man opens up about his suicidal tendencies unasked, the man continually at war with depression and the drugs he took to control it. Lipsky isn't happy when Dave offers to talk to his girlfriend back in New York (Anna Chlumsky, HBO's 'Veep'), then spends a half an hour on the phone, but when Betsy approaches Lipsky in her kitchen to talk about a book, Wallace closes down, convinced the man is trying to encroach upon his territory. The journey back to Bloomington is uncomfortably, simmeringly silent.
Segel was an inspired choice for the role, softening his speaking voice in service to a gentle, damaged giant. He makes his Dave a bundle of contradictions, a man hoping to achieve greatness while fearful of being considered anything but an average guy. His is a man both repelled and fascinated by the American way of life (that heroin question? He's adamant he never tried it, admitting only to a television addiction). Segel makes us see a man overthinking things, Lipsky's query re: his headgear answered with the practical reason (too much sweat), before the worry begins that it will now seem an affectation. Eisenberg walks a tricky tightrope, wanting to befriend his subject while producing an interview worthy of both readership and Wallace's approval. For every two confident steps he makes, he retreats one in confusion.
Ponsoldt wraps his illuminating 5 day biopic with an indelible image. Wallace confounds Lipsky upon his departure, telling him he'll be attending a Church dance later that evening. After inventorying Wallace's home (Alanis Morrisette poster, Barney towel used as a bathroom curtain), Lipsky leaves lost in contemplation. In a Church hall, David Foster Wallace towers over everyone, happily lost in the joy of movement.
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