In 1996, David Foster Wallace published his masterwork Infinite Jest, which launched him into the stratosphere of celebrity authors, a position with which Wallace was famously uncomfortable. By that time, the New York-based writer David Lipsky had published two novels to quite estimable acclaim, which, nevertheless, seemed slight to him when compared with Wallace’s lionization. He pitched a profile of Wallace to his editor at Rolling Stone, and soon Lipsky was off to southern Illinois, where Wallace was teaching, to join the celebrated author for five days of interviews and the last stops on the Infinite Jest book tour.
Movies about writers can be notorious slogs but, amazingly, The End of the Tour is not one of those films. In fact, it is so much better than any movie based primarily on conversations has any right to be. For one thing, the actors Jason Segel (as Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky) offer a study in contrasts: Segel’s nonchalance is so at odds with Eisenberg’s squirrelly demeanor that there’s inherent drama in their interactions. Since his death by suicide in 2008, Wallace’s folk status as a national hero of arts and letters has only grown, which has caused family members and other partisans to reject this movie outright, even though the image of Wallace it creates is tender and generous.
Although his article was never published in Rolling Stone, Lipsky authored the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace in 2010 after Wallace’s death. The book’s transcriptions of their conversations at Wallace’s Midwest home and on the road form the basis of the movie, as well. The conversations are far-reaching yet intimate, sometimes tentative, other times assured, and forged over junk food, soda pop, and Alanis Morissette confessions.
James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) manages to keep us focused on this two-hander with plentiful camera movement that also makes note of the characters’ surroundings. Whether at Lipsky’s bookish apartment or Wallace’s snow-encrusted ranch house, or in the convenience stores, diners, classroom, and rental cars they pass through, the film has a real physicality that roots the two men in their environs. A stop for a book reading in the Twin Cities is especially enlightening. Joan Cusack becomes a delightful presence as Wallace’s chirpy, local publisher’s rep who’s chauffeuring the men around town. And a meeting there with two women (Gummer and Chlumsky), one an old college flame of Wallace’s, proves especially enlightening, and clarifies some of the differences and underlying tensions between the two men. It’s not necessary to be a connoisseur of Wallace’s to appreciate the film because, in the end, it’s just a story about two very different, but not so different, guys tapping out their livings in modern America.
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