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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.