The End of the Tour, a drama about a five-day interview/road trip that took place between novelist David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky in 1996, has already received significant pushback from those closest to the late author, who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace’s estate announced in April it had “no connection with, and neither endorse nor support The End of the Tour,” and left open the door for future legal action against the movie, objecting to the fact that the story is “loosely based” on transcripts from Lipsky’s interview and that “David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.” Film critic Glenn Kenny, a friend of Wallace’s, also spoke out against The End of the Tour, complaining that the movie fails to capture the author’s essence and does a disservice to a man it’s supposedly trying to honor, Kenny referring to Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace as “ghoulish self-aggrandizement.”
As with most movies based on real people, I feel grateful not to have any intimate knowledge of the individuals dramatized in The End of the Tour. But while I can understand why those who knew and loved Wallace would be pained by the way he’s portrayed in this compassionate, thoughtful, quietly prickly film, I’d also suggest that The End of the Tour’s depiction of the Infinite Jest author isn’t meant to be entirely accurate. The Wallace we see in this film isn’t so much a person as it is a projection from another person. Part of the reason this movie is so heartbreaking is that it’s not really about Wallace—it’s about Lipsky, and all the rest of us peering through the glass into other people’s lives.
The movie opens in 2008 with Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) learning that Wallace has killed himself. Shocked by the news, Lipsky goes back to the interview tapes from the two men’s 1996 encounter, which occurred after Lipsky convinced his editors at Rolling Stone that Wallace was that rare rock-star novelist who merited a profile piece. The rest of The End of the Tour plays like an extended flashback, a series of scenes presumably conjured up in Lipsky’s mind as he listens to those tapes and reflects on their time together.
When Lipsky and Wallace meet, they are at very different points in their life. Wallace may be only a few years older than Lipsky, but career-wise he’s eons ahead: Lipsky has just written a book that’s gotten a small amount of attention, while Wallace is being hailed as a brilliant, once-in-a-generation artist because of Infinite Jest, with every one of Wallace’s glowing reviews acting as a thorn in Lipsky’s side. The younger man wants to hate the book when he reads it, but grudgingly realizes it’s a masterpiece, prompting him to profile Wallace for Rolling Stone. Intriguingly, The End of the Tour never makes it entirely clear what the percentages of envy, admiration and curiosity are in Lipsky’s decision to interview Wallace: Soon enough, he’s left New York to meet Wallace at his modest, messy Bloomington, Illinois home as the author prepares for the final leg of an Infinite Jest promotional tour. Wary of being interviewed but feeling a kinship with a fellow writer, Wallace begins to open up around Lipsky as they share car rides and plane trips.
The End of the Tour is directed by James Ponsoldt, who, as he did with Smashed and The Spectacular Now, displays an impressive ability to conjure up intimacy, to give seemingly simple, naturalistic conversations the zip and tension of real life without calling attention to it. (Playwright Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer for Dinner With Friends, based his screenplay on Lipsky’s 2010 memoir about his Wallace interview, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.) There’s no Sorkin-like witticisms in The End of the Tour, but there is oodles of good talk, as the two men feel each other out—interviewer and interviewee—while discussing writing, ambition, fame and life.
Lipsky asks most of the questions, which puts him in a position of power, and one of the great elements of Eisenberg’s performance is that we’re never quite sure how Lipsky will wield that power. Sometimes a buddy, sometimes an inquisitor, sometimes play-acting the role of Wallace’s literary peer, Lipsky seems to be trying out personae around Wallace, seeing this decorated novelist as a measuring stick for his own comparably limited success.
A closeness develops between the two men, but Eisenberg always makes us wonder how exactly Lipsky is interpreting their exchanges. We sense that Lipsky is flattered by Wallace’s respect and thoughtfulness, but there’s always a tinge of something darker going on behind Eisenberg’s eyes. This technique isn’t new for the actor: From The Squid and the Whale to The Social Network, Eisenberg has excelled at playing brainy characters whose aura of superiority always seems to be in danger of short-circuiting because of outside forces they can’t control. Lipsky is a variation on a familiar Eisenberg protagonist, but the actor imbues him with a warmth and disarming vulnerability so that we see why Wallace would lower his guard around him.
Speaking of Wallace, Segel plays him as a focused, recessive figure. It’s the kind of performance—and from the type of actor—that often attracts plenty of attention and acclaim, a lot of it misguided in its accolades. Because Segel is known for comedies like How I Met Your Mother and The Muppets, he doesn’t have the reputation for being a Serious Actor. That said, because he so adeptly plays an esteemed author like Wallace—imitating the man’s speaking style and mannerisms—there’s a natural reaction from viewers to over-inflate their praise, to confuse the quality of the acting with their own shock at seeing a funny guy try to do drama.
But what makes Segel’s performance so good is that it cuts against that template. Rather than being heavily mannered, Segel is largely withdrawn in the role: Even when Wallace speaks passionately about his own misgivings about his writing, the actor doesn’t command the room—he doesn’t show his hand by telling us, “See, this is how David Foster Wallace really was.” It’s more of a guess at a man rather than a definitive take on him, which is entirely keeping with what The End of the Tour wants to say about perception and interpretation.
Throughout the film, Wallace tells Lipsky that he’s nervous what kind of profile piece the reporter will write about him, noting that their many conversations could be skewed in all different directions during the retelling. Lipsky tells him not to worry, but that doesn’t stop the reporter from clandestinely rifling through Wallace’s medicine cabinet or insisting on keeping the tape recorder rolling throughout most of the day. Lipsky admires Wallace, but he also has a job to do, his need to snoop inexorably connected to his personal desire to figure out what makes this genius tick. One suspects that Lipsky isn’t sure if he wants to herald the guy or bury him in his profile piece: Would he feel better knowing that a likeminded writer can find success, or would he prefer to uncover a charlatan as a way to boost his own sagging spirits?
Just as profile pieces can’t ever hope to be perfectly accurate to their subject—what would that even mean?—so too does every biopic have to twist information in certain ways, either intentionally or because its makers interpret their characters in one particular way. For a movie about conducting an interview, The End of the Tour is all about the impossibility of knowing someone. Over the course of the film, Lipsky and Wallace begin to bond, the inevitable posturing that goes on in a lot of new male friendships eventually giving way to something that could best be described as platonic love. (Eisenberg and Segel have a terrific chemistry, their characters’ back-and-forth exchanges flecked with the natural digressions and casual banter we hear in real life.) But then, something almost imperceptible happens that changes their rapport, opening up a slowly growing chasm between them that they can’t quite reconcile. The reasons are unspoken, but we can deduce what’s going on. In a sense, we (like the movie and like Lipsky in his memoir) are interpreting events, which inevitably changes the meaning of what happened in the exact moment that caused their relationship to shift.
That’s why Wallace remains something of a sympathetic enigma in The End of the Tour: Even when Lipsky is looking back on those five days, he still can’t quite articulate what they meant or who Wallace was. With touching humility, the movie is a running acknowledgment of the futility of “cracking” anyone, whether in a profile or in a film. Lipsky can’t with Wallace because he can’t escape his own baggage and skewed perspective. (The End of the Tour can very easily be read as Lipsky’s take on his time with Wallace. The movie —an impression of Lipsky’s memory of events that happened 12 years earlier—only adds to the layers upon layers of revision and increases the chance of inaccuracy.) It’s no coincidence that, by the end of the movie, Lipsky isn’t talking about facts but feelings. It sells the idea that it’s very hard to say with 100-percent certainty how events in our lives transpired exactly, but we do know how those moments changed us deeply. As The End of the Tour suggests beautifully, that may be all we need.
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