Overview: A young writer and Rolling Stone journalist spends five days with Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace during the final leg of a book tour in 1996. A24 Films; 2015; Rated R; 106 minutes.
Portrait of the Artist: Any filmmaker, screenwriter, or actor who would attempt the making of a film about the life and works of American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace is seemingly setting themselves up for near-unavoidable failure. Wallace, who in life was an intimately private, conservative, and intensely troubled talent and creative voice, was also quite self-conscious of how his image was being projected and taken in by an audience of starving consumers eager for a picture and byline to apply to the enigmatic writer of a book as monolithic as Infinite Jest. But in the hands of director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Donald Margulies, and actor Jason Segel, The End of the Tour manages said feat not just capably, but with a remarkable respect and sincerity towards the film’s romanticized subject pulled from the pages of life itself. Similar to the way in which James Joyce could be seen as the literary figurehead of the twentieth century, Wallace is the voice largely authorial over the early twenty-first, and in Ponsoldt’s drama we have our new portrait of the artist as he may have been, at least according to the transcribed conversation compiled and posthumously published by contemporary writer David Lipsky.
A Brief Interview: As Wallace, Segel exudes a certain cagey self-defensiveness masquerading as self-confidence, and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky proves a more than capable match for Margulies’ adapted meeting of the minds. In the space of what is depicted in Ponsoldt’s film as what was a brief, transitory, and impermanent exchange between two people on opposite ends of a spectrum of professional, personal, and creative fulfillment, Segel and Eisenberg both repel and attract one another, the former engaged in a brief interview with a man similar to himself. Both fast friends and brutal rivals towards one another’s successes in life and work, Wallace and Lipsky as depicted in The End of the Tour are largely consistent with the unedited transcript posthumously published under the title Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by Lipsky in 2010, only two years after Wallace tragically took his own life in 2008.
Becoming Themselves: The entire production is tinged with the remorse and longing for the man whom Ponsoldt, Margulies, Segel, and Eisenberg by extension all feel intellectually responsible for representing accurately, all of which is backed up by the compassion held in the two actors’ performances, and articulated through Ponsodlt’s visually tactful distancing of himself from his subject, and Margulies’ minute attention to relaying only what was presented in Lipsky’s publication of 2010. Instead of exploiting or manipulating the image of the film’s subject in order to stroke the collective ego of the production’s inherent precocity, The End of the Tour is an honest and utterly unglamorous depiction of its author. Wallace is as pissy and defensive about his own well documented personal and professional failings as Lipsky is reedy and preening in wanting to be liked, accepted, and quite probably enveloped by a talent that he sees as being far greater than his own; neither character is superficially appealing, which is a large part of what makes them so darn compelling and human in the first place, the act undertaken in the becoming of themselves the film’s true thematic catharsis.
Overall: Ponsoldt, Margulies, Segel, and Eisenberg achieve the unthinkable in bringing their enigmatic and intensely private post-modern author to the big screen, and do so without reducing his legacy to mere romantic caricature, the film an entertainment worthy of the infinite jester himself in its anticlimactic themes and realistic tone.