The Demystification of a Literary Icon, ‘The End of the Tour’ is Smart, Soulful Cinema

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Let’s just get this out of the way. I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace. Judge me as you will. But enough people I respect and admire have praised his work, so I know there’s a party going on and I’m just ridiculously late to it. I tell you, it’s a shitty feeling. With The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, I got the feeling of understanding the respected author through the film’s understated portrait, one that mostly avoids oppressive sentimentality and hagiography. Rather, The End of the Tour is a journey into the nervous center of a creative mind, where neuroses create competition between creatives when there is none.

The film opens on September 12, 2008. David Foster Wallace has just been found dead of an apparent suicide. Distraught, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) revisits old tapes he did for a Rolling Stone interview 12 years prior. Naturally, the film flashes back those 12 years, to when Lipsky was starting out at Rolling Stone following the publication of his first novel. Wowed by Infinite Jest, Wallace’s breakout novel, Lipsky pitches an interview with Wallace to his editor. Next thing you know, Lipsky is at Wallace’s house in Illinois, meeting the author played by Jason Segel, there to tagalong to the last stop of the author’s book tour in Minneapolis. Over the course of a couple days, the two writers bond and feud, seemingly going through all the steps of a long friendship in a short timeframe. These two don’t share profound life lessons, they merely reach a mutual understanding and respect of one another.

The End of the Tour works as a movie because it doesn’t try to solve or explain any of the mysteries surrounding its subject. There’s no intention of painting David Foster Wallace as a tortured soul oppressed by a society that doesn’t understand him. Instead, it portrays Wallace as a human being struggling to make it work in this world. The screenplay by Donald Margulies does contain some wordy, thoughtful dialogue, but more often than not the film is working as a conversation between two human beings. Director James Ponsoldt is able to use images to convey the changing nature of their relationship, not solely relying on verbal sparring by its intellectual leads.

As much as the writing and direction allow the film to work within its own confines, The End of the Tour would not work so well if not for the soulful performance by Jason Segel. The actor, most typically associated with comedy, gives a performance of remarkable restraint and subtlety, possibly the finest of his career. Conversely, Jesse Eisenberg gives another trademark performance. It’s not to say that Eisenberg is a bad actor (he isn’t), it’s more to say that he plays David Lipsky with his typical fashion – the smarmy intellectual-type. The two leads are amply assisted by a number of brief supporting roles, most notably Joan Cusack appearing to provide a bit of comic relief as a publicist for Wallace’s book tour.

Part of the demystification within The End of the Tour is the way which the film portrays Wallace as this flawed piece of Americana. Despite rumors of substance abuse, Wallace’s greatest vice in the film is his affection for junk food, soda, and trashy television. In Minneapolis, the author wants to visit the mecca of American consumerism, The Mall of America. Taking it a step further, Wallace and company attend a screening of Broken Arrow, the absurd action film by John Woo which stars John Travolta and Christian Slater. It’s one brief and comical scene, but it works to blur the lines between the high-minded and lowbrow.

Sadly, The End of the Tour descends into sentimentality at the very end that it so wisely avoided for most of the film. It’s just too neat an ending to feel like it matches with the rest of the film. Ending aside, The End of the Tour is funny, touching look into a moment between two writers. It deals with universal issues about insecurities and inadequacies through an examination of a modern literary icon.

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