The End of the Tour

Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based story covering the five days David Lipsky spent with author David Foster Wallace at the end of his 1996 tour for Infinite Jest.  The Lowdown: Not really a biopic, but more a compelling — and surprisingly entertaining — slice of time spent with a famous writer, and the tensions and evasions and possible insights it brings forth. This movie should be seen.

Score:

Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: James Ponsoldt (Smashed)
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsy, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack
Rated: R

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Full confession: I have never read anything by David Foster Wallace and most of what I “know” about him, I learned from James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, which I approached with some caution. I had admired Ponsoldt’s Smashed (2012) (it’s too unpleasant to like), but found his The Spectacular Now (2013) far from spectacular. The film’s unfamiliar subject and my mixed feelings about the director raised my skepticism, but the film turned out to be close to wonderful. Whether it’s an accurate portrait of Wallace (played by a revelatory Jason Segel), I leave to others to debate. I’m also not in the least sure that it matters much. This is less an attempt at depicting Wallace than a savvy look at the nature of fame and the relationship between an interviewer and his subject.

 

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The interviewer in this case is David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who talked Rolling Stone into footing the bill for him to spend five days interviewing Wallace during the final leg of the author’s 1996 book tour supporting his most famous book Infinite Jest. Lipsky never did anything with the interviews until after Wallace’s suicide in 2008 when he published the interviews as a book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The film is built around Lipsky going through his tapes and notes on Wallace. What we end up with is both Lipsky’s version of Wallace and the film’s own portrait of Lipsky and his relationship with Wallace over those five days. Regardless of its accuracy — or lack thereof — it makes for fascinating viewing that possibly says more about Lipsky and the cult of celebrity than it does Wallace.

 

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The film makes it clear from the start that Wallace is guarded in his dealings with Lipsky and may well be withholding more than he’s revealing. He may, in fact, be playing the part of the David Foster Wallace he imagines Lipsky is looking for — at least in part. He is, however, not a bad interview subject in that he is genuinely interested in his interviewer. (Most of the better ones are.) How much of that has to do with wanting to understand just what Lipsky’s agenda is remains a question, though we get a sense of that in Wallace’s occasional accusation that Lipsky has less desire for truth than good copy. And his skepticism may not be entirely off-base, since Lipsky’s undeniable hero worship is tinged with both a desire to be Wallace and a resentment over the fact that Infinite Jest is wildly successful, while Lipsky’s own book, The Art Fair, has been largely ignored. (At the same time, Wallace is seemingly perturbed by the fact that Lipsky was given a voice in the matter of his book’s cover — a rare thing in the publishing world. The film is nothing if not savvy.)

 

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What we are given is a film made up almost entirely of conversations between the two. That may not sound exciting, but it is in the case of The End of the Tour, because the conversations are so compelling. It doesn’t matter how honest either man is being; their verbal jousting is riveting and fascinating. It’s also impossible not to feel that, as the tension increases between them, a level of honesty is creeping into the mix. The filters seem less and less in place. The more each lands a verbal blow, the more it seems likely the facades are crumbling. This is perhaps why the film’s last stretch — which includes a fight so intense they stop speaking to each other for a time — is its least successful part. The film recovers, but the recovery is tentative and guarded. The defenses are back in place, except they can’t quite be. Too much has been said. Too much might have been revealed.

 

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The End of the Tour is the kind of film I suspect will grow on me over time (it’s less than 24 hours since I saw it) and with repeat viewings. It’s already pretty high on my list for the year. It may move higher. It is without a doubt a wonderful exercise in acting by the two leads, especially Segel. I honestly don’t think I’d have even recognized him if I hadn’t gone in knowing he was playing Wallace. So much of the dialogue is memorable and worthy of pondering that it’s a film to revel in. Now, whether or not I end up like Wallace’s perky tour escort (Joan Cusack), and come to the point of “I may have to buy your book and read it,” is a separate issue altogether. But maybe. Rated R for language including some sexual references.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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33 thoughts on “The End of the Tour

  1. Steven

    I agree with most of what you’ve said. The film grew on me as it went along, and the longer it sits with me, the more I like it. I already feel compelled to revisit it. The small but annoyingly vocal criticism on the accuracy of Wallace seems irrelevant. Notably, Glenn Kenny, who knew Wallace, seems so blinded by this off portrayal that he’s ignoring the simple truth that the film really isn’t about Wallace. It’s about two men at different points in their lives with different agendas, but somehow finding an acceptance within one another. That, along with the prevalent sadness through it all, makes for something compelling.

    And I’ll echo the constant praise for Segel. I’m familiar with a great deal of the man’s work. There wasn’t a single point here where I felt he was playing himself.

    • Ken Hanke

      I think the greatest praise possible for Segel is that not only did I never feel he was being Jason Segel, I never thought about it. I wasn’t sitting there marveling over this being Segel, which would be its own distraction. I simply accepted him as Wallace.

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    I doubt you would enjoy Infinite Jest. While the vocabulary and many turns of phrases are exceptional, I think its true purpose is to make readers more appreciative of novels whose coherence they may take for granted.

    I far prefer The Broom of the System – the paperback of which a bookstore attendee asks Wallace to sign in the film and is told that “the new one is way better” than “that old thing,” or something like that – which I think is worthy of the effusive praise heaped upon IJ. His essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again may be the best place to start, especially the titular article and the one about David Lynch circa Lost Highway. You can probably skip the two tennis essays.

      • Me

        Yeah, that was a fun interview even though it was just Marc going down the line of PT’s movies and asking him what they were about.

          • Me

            It was kind of funny when he got 2 or 3 movies deep and you’re like “oh, this is where he’s going with this.”

        • Steven

          I did find it amusing to hear PTA saying he’d cut down Magnolia

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            Odd, since in the Making Of doc on the DVD he has a pre-production chat with the cast and crew about how the film will be exactly 3 hours and 8 minutes.

      • Me

        I didn’t get a chance to. I was thinking Mistress America is coming out in the next week or two, I might save myself a trip and make it a double feature. That is, if The End of the Tour sticks around.

          • Ken Hanke

            This did not do anything like was expected. Not sure I’d count on it still being here on 9/4.

          • Me

            Sounds like they wont line up for me, I better get up there this weekend. I ended up watching Fort Tilden online, have you seen this? I like movies with obnoxious characters, but man the two girls in this film pushed my limits. It may have one of the most uncomfortable scenes Ive seen this year.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I’m going to have a sell couple of weeks, so we’ll balance each other out.

      • Xanadon't

        Yep. Other than not being able to stand watching Jesse Eisenberg smoke cigarettes, I very much enjoyed it.

  3. Bob Voorhees

    Yea well, Kenny. Yours are some sound intuitions on the flick, methinks. In this genre, it doesn’t come close to matching “My Dinner with Andre” because that movie dealt with substantive philosophical and life-choice issues while this seems to be mostly about more surface things like personality clashes, what type of toothpaste Wallace had in his bathroom, etc.
    I thought the acting was superb, not only Segel’s but also that of the little elfin, Hobbit-person who tailed him about the frozen barrens and asked mostly uninteresting questions, which didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the poor man’s brilliant, depressed and complex mind. But how could a second rate Hobbit have done that? How could he even have smoked a cigarette?
    We see Wallace straining against his demons, trying to be “normal”. The variety of ways he attempts do do this is fascinating and heart-wrenching. His teaching might have been salvific, but this (one, little) scene is what Hollywood does to teachers, even brilliant, idiosyncratic ones. Think Wahlberg as a lecturer. Think Phoenix as Professor Schlemozzel of Existentialism 101. Think Robin Williams doing shtick in a prep school. Imagine what might have resulted if the director had chosen to draw out this scene and given it some substance.
    What the flick missed most of all was Wallace’s brain beneath all this surface stuff. Imagine if he’d had a genuine intellectual to draw him out instead of this Hobbit talking shallow bullshit.

    • Ken Hanke

      Tell you what — you don’t call me Kenny and I don’t call you Bobby.

      • Bob Voorhees

        Oh Kenny, do call me Bobby. Or, call me Winston Churchill if you’d like

  4. Me

    I wish the film would have touched upon Wallace’s thoughts on irony. That Updike picture on his fridge, I thought he was no fan of Updike?

    • Ken Hanke

      The problem with wishing what the movie touches on is that it’s inherently limited by the source material. If Wallace’s thoughts on irony aren’t in that material… As for the picture of Updike, presumably that was recorded by Lipsky. Why it’s there…I don’t know, but there could be any number of reasons that have nothing to do with being a fan.

  5. Ken Hanke

    This will be gone from The Carolina by Wed. and from the Fine Arts by Friday.

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