There’s nothing ostentatious about “The End of The Tour.” The film is visually bleak with not much to look at. And there’s not much of an emotional climax either, the narrative just flows like one long conversation, which is basically what this film is – candid moments between an author and a journalist. And yet, the film is incredibly rewarding on a cerebral level.
Despite never having read “Infinite Jest,” the uberacclaimed encyclopedic-novel (the book clocks in at a formidable 1,079 pages) by celebrated American writer David Foster Wallace, I could tell director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now,” “Smashed”) wanted to honor the person not the publication. In relating the story in minimalist fashion, Ponsoldt draws our attention to the prolific conversations between Wallace (Jason Segel) and journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), which start off banal, but then become personally painful by the end.
The film takes place in the mid-nineties, about 12 years before Wallace’s death in 2008. At the time, “Infinite Jest” had been on the bookshelves long enough for most scholars and critics to laud it to death. In the film, Lipsky, a “Rolling Stone” journalist, wants to do a profile on Wallace, something his editor has reticence towards. There’s a big deal made over the fact that the publication hasn’t done a piece on a writer in years, but Lipsky persists on covering the author, something of an idol and rock star in his eyes, until his editor acquiesces. Lipsky follows Wallace for five days on his book tour, interviewing him along the way, covering a myriad of topics from the book’s inspiration to consumerism to depression and institutionalization. The interview, however, never made it to print. The film is based on Lipsky’s book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace” (2010) where Lipsky recounts his unpublished moments with the author during their few days together.
The film is something of a gateway for Wallace novices like myself (I knew who Wallace was by reputation, but had to look up “Infinite Jest” after the screening), with Eisenberg’s character serving as the inquisitive protagonist, the average-man archetype we can vicariously identify with, pressing his enigmatic subject to answer our plethora of questions. “The End of the Tour” is exciting in a philosophically, dialogue-driven narrative kind of way, where each answer leads to more questions (and often head scratches). Ponsoldt chips away at Wallace’s academic façade, the part of him that Lipsky canonizes to a fault, and humanizes the author, revealing his more relatable characteristics, including his vices.
Although Eisenberg gets top-billing here, this is totally Segel’s film. He exudes a mellow, sort of hippie coffee shop owner kind of vibe. His chill persona lends itself well for Segel’s brilliant deadpan, but it also allows him room to show us a departure from his usual comic schtick; here, dry-humor moments can subtly transition to something intellectually cavernous with seemingly little effort. Eisenberg, like in most of his films, plays a quick-witted young dude, almost too smart for his own good. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen this version of Eisenberg, a better version, in fact, in his other roles. Here, he has a little room for some emotional moments, but he doesn’t sell it as well as he has the potential to. He’s totally in the shadow of Segel who has a much more fascinating character to dissect.
The film is beautifully and ironically low-key, considering how much it deals with “how seductive image is.” Ponsoldt shows great restraint, allowing us to examine Wallace without turning him into a spectacle – something Wallace would have abhorred, guessing from his monologues about the ills of consumerism and the tragic consequences of binge spectatorship. The book, according to what was discussed in the film, appears to have a heavy-handed approach towards addiction – something Wallace alleges was the main idea behind the book. The film is not so didactic, it’s open-minded in its purpose, it’s more of a portrait that shows us a little bit of the hypocrisy in Wallace’s ideologies. We often see him indulging in the things he deems harmful in large doses such as television, candy and action flicks. There’s also a scene where Wallace accurately prognosticates how the advent of more advanced technology will render users socially inept. Some parts are a bit preachy, but Segel’s character is so convincing even when he pontificates, there’s always some tragic truth behind everything he says.
“The End of the Tour” is simply unforgettable; Its strongest point is the writing. Writer Donald Margulies makes his first film screenplay into a conversation you want to listen in on far longer than the film’s allotted running time, freckling it with indelible quotes like this one: “writers aren’t smarter than other people. They’re just more compelling in their stupidity.” I wouldn’t have minded listening to Wallace’s “stupidity” a bit more.