The End of the Tour is a bold and lofty biopic that focuses on the 1996 interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and postmodern novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), after the release and subsequent praise for his massive novel Infinite Jest. The film opens with the news of Wallace’s suicide, which seems impossible to Lipsky, and as events progress further we start to see why. Segel offers one of his best performances, even if it is largely superficial, capturing much of the spirit of the troubled and perceptive novelist.
After finding out about Wallace’s death Lipsky listens to old tapes from his interview with David Foster Wallace and transports us back to 1996. Lipsky, a haughty young aspiring writer/reporter for Rolling Stone, succumbs to the craze of Infinite Jest. Lipsky convinces his reluctant editor (Ron Livingston) to set up an interview with the eccentric Wallace, urging him to find a story about the author.
Wallace, a professor of English and creative writing, is also a paranoid cynical recluse, living alone in his icy home with his two dogs that he finds formidable companions in contrast to the bog of human relationships.
Wallace was an intellect with ideas about television culture and corporate magazines – a Kurt Cobain for the literary world. Then there’s Lipsky, just as bright, never trailing behind in the conversation, but desperate for validation for his writing, and from Wallace. The film’s dialectical structure, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, takes front and center as we hear Lipsky interview Wallace during the last days of his book tour for Infinite Jest. The two contemplate life, happiness, and loneliness – not only revealing each characters ideology but their vulnerabilities and insecurities.
Jesse Eisenberg does a fine job portraying fledgling reporter David Lipsky, channeling his inner Mark Zuckerberg to portray another selfish work-obsessed real-life persona. Lipsky is after his own validation and the material fame that comes along with that, but Wallace is after happiness and the purge of loneliness. Lipsky is almost scornful at Wallace’s disregard to the fame that seems to come so easily, wanting all the glory and acceptance for himself.
But it’s really Jason Segel who surprises with his performance, albeit one lacking real depth at times. Segel does the best he can with this complex role of a man at odds with the world, a black sheep in the literary world unwilling to accept the fame granted him by the upper echelons of the cultural elite. He doesn’t think he is the genius or celebrity that everyone wants him to be and goes about with a natural modest, almost naïve childlike sensibility, a boy exposed to the world far too soon. Wallace shrugs off his fame and perhaps Segel plays the role in a similar way, playing to the best of his ability, shrugging off the performance as best as he can with cool collectedness, never elevating Wallace.
Nevertheless, his performance is good enough and a fresh change for a man that worked on a sitcom for almost a decade and mostly comedic films. It also helps that he has the advantage of having some of the film’s funniest and most charming lines.
Furthermore, he does a fine job capturing the zeitgeist that was David Foster Wallace to his generation. Apart from the intellect, he presents Wallace’s murky past – much speculated about by the media -, which included alcoholism and excessive drug use. Segel ‘s performance offers a glimpse to the creativity he can bring to a dramatic role, and will hopefully propel him into more serious turns in the future.
Director James Ponsoldt does an adequate job interspersing these interesting and perceptive dialogues between Wallace and Lipsky which offer reflections on unquestioned and complacent American values, particularly a TV obsessed culture, which in the same way mimics the adoration for a novelist who often disregarded such idolatry.
Wallace’s existence wasn’t predicated with fame and faceless adoration and affectations, whereas Lipsky desperately wanted what Wallace cared so little for – a material world of depth-less happiness. In the end it’s this line that separates both writers; Wallace is desperate to make a friend in Lipsky, who is after both the story and approval, becoming so preoccupied with his interview and making an impression that his relationship with Wallace becomes conflicted. It is this conflict that brings about some of the best scenes.
However, there is hope at the end, now that Lipsky’s job has ended, I think it becomes clear that both men have learned a few things about themselves and that wall of media/celebrity is now gone, each left with a deep regard and tacit understanding of each other. Ultimately, The End of the Tour is a brilliantly crafted and intelligent biopic, less about David Foster Wallace and more about capturing the essence of an era and promulgating a dying intellectualism in our lethargic culture.