Author + reporter = brainy talk in ‘End of the Tour’
Even if you’ve never read anything by the late American author David Foster Wallace, you might be intrigued by The End of the Tour. Based on a nonfiction memoir by journalist David Lipsky about a few days he spent on the road with Wallace on a book tour in 1996, at the height of his celebrity, the film is mostly a conversation about fame (and its consequences), the emptiness of American culture, and the ongoing search for connection. But while it examines the cult of celebrity, the film also takes a cool view of the subculture that feeds on it.
Directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), the film is scripted by Donald Margulies from Lipsky’s 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. It falls into the category of brainy talk movies like My Dinner With Andre—although there’s more action in this one; the locales change, a few supporting characters are sprinkled about, and there’s a framing story about Lipsky’s life before and after the encounter. But the talk is pretty interesting. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky with his usual nervous energy beneath an easygoing veneer. But Jason Segel is the big news, delivering a performance of affecting depth, warmth and wit as Wallace—pretty amazing for an actor more often seen in Judd Apatow comedies or cavorting with the Muppets.
In 2008, New York journalist Lipsky (Eisenberg) gets a phone call telling him iconic author David Foster Wallace has committed suicide. This shocking news sends Lipsky pawing through a box of old audio tapes for an interview he conducted with Wallace 12 years earlier, when he was a cub reporter for Rolling Stone.
The film flashes back to 1996. After reading a laudatory review in Time magazine of Wallace’s towering breakout novel, Infinite Jest, aspiring author Lipsky devours the book and begs his editor to assign him to interview Wallace. (As an alternative to Lipsky’s usual gig, “500 words on some boy band.”) Off to Bloomington, Illinois, in the dead of winter, Lipsky finds the isolated ranch house where Wallace (Segel) lives with his two big goofy dogs.
At 34, the very private Wallace is approachable, if a little dubious about being interviewed. (He finds it “disturbing” that Lipsky will go back home and “shape” the interview as he sees fit.) Still, he puts up Lipsky in his house and invites him to tag along to a creative writing class he teaches at Illinois State University (where the students love him), a book reading in Minneapolis, and an NPR radio interview.
But mostly, they talk. About the fame that Lipsky envies and Wallace insists “is not real,” Wallace’s fear of becoming a “whore” or being outed as some kind of “fraud.” Lipsky’s editor presses him to get the dirt on the author’s alleged mental breakdown and heroin addiction, but what Wallace is really hooked on is junk food and junk TV, whose gaudy siren song is so distracting, he won’t have one in his house or he’d never write again.
But a deeper spiritual crisis eats away at Wallace. He calls his novel “a nerdy book about loneliness.” Regarding his subject, “overeducated white guys,” with too many high-tech toys, he wonders “why are we still so lonely?” Technology itself, he equates with “masturbation,” giving us access to immediate pleasures that are devoid of meaning.
Wallace battled depression for 20 years, a battle he finally lost. After his death, in the film’s coda, Lipsky dusts off his old tapes of their five-day interview (his proposed piece never ran in Rolling Stone, although the film doesn’t mention this), and writes his own celebrated book about Wallace. We see him giving a bookstore reading to a packed house, far bigger than the audience for a reading of Lipsky’s own novel seen earlier in the film.
This may be the kind of “cashing in” the real-life Wallace would have abhorred, nor does Lipsky appear to wring any particular insight or epiphany out of his now-timely tapes. But Segel’s wry performance reimagines a smart, vibrant Wallace at the height of his creativity.
THE END OF THE TOUR
With Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. Written by Donald Margulies from the book by David Lipsky. Directed by James Ponsoldt. An A24 release. Rated R. 106 minutes.
REAL TALK Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Jason Segel (right) in James Ponsoldt’s ‘The End of the Tour,’ which revisits author David Foster Wallace at the height of his career.