David Foster Wallace has been called the greatest writer of his generation and his gargantuan masterpiece Infinite Jest has equally been considered one of the most important works to come out in years. Only twenty years after the release of this seminal book, he’s already placed alongside J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon in terms of greatness. Seven years after his suicide, Wallace has become an idea as much as a fantastic author.
James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour realizes the gigantic nature of its figure and due to this foresight, it turns what could’ve easily been a straight-forward biopic into a small glimpse into the life of the legend at a very specific, yet important point in his life. Ponsoldt creates a film that could’ve just as easily been about fictional characters, but instead turns it into a fascinating look at trying to capture the spirit of who Wallace was and the troubles that inhabited him at all times.
The End of the Tour focuses on the final five days of Wallace (Jason Segel) on his publicity tour for Infinite Jest in 1996, when the world had already claimed it as a masterpiece. Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) follows Wallace for these five days, eating junk food, traveling, discussing Alanis Morissette, and trying to find the story that lies with the literary world’s newest genius.
The End of Tour wisely doesn’t attempt to glorify Wallace, but instead focuses on the friendship that grows between these two men at varying levels of success. Wallace has just done what every writer dreams they could do, but doesn’t find the satisfaction that he hoped he would have. Meanwhile Lipsky, who has written several unsuccessful books, looks at Wallace as his ultimate goal, even as Wallace continually tells him that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
With his last three films, Ponsoldt has figured out how to hit similar themes, but in more succinct ways. From Smashed to The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, he examined alcoholism and its effects on relationships, as well as made his films their most interesting when simply creating scenes of his characters talking. Even more than his two previous films, The End of the Tour handles these elements without being overt about them.
The End of the Tour’s script, from Pulitzer winning playwright Donald Marguiles is deceptively simple, but intricately places us in the mindset of these two men in each situation. Lipsky hopes that there’s a part of Wallace in himself and while a friendship is there, his main focus in proving himself as a journalist, whereas Wallace also sees the similarities between himself and Lipsky, but wants to give him an honest portrayal of himself, if only Lipsky will listen to what he’s saying.
Much has been made of Segel’s performance as Wallace and rightly so, even though it’s unfair to call this a departure for him. Even in his comedic work, there’s been a sense of melancholy in almost all of his roles – from the world-destroying disappointment of Nick Andropolis losing his dream in Freaks and Geeks to the heartbreak that pushes him forward in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – the only difference here is how he places that just under the surface, instead of putting it front and center. The result is a staggeringly beautiful performance that plays wonderfully to Segel’s strengths.
Eisenberg as Lipsky is playing a role we’re much more used to seeing him in, the smug but somehow likable guy, but he’s also pushing what he can do in his comfort zone by taking Lipsky to extremes, often being Wallace’s best friend and biggest antagonist within the same conversation. Together, Segel and Eisenberg are fantastic, making this script – which is mostly created from the actual recordings of conversation that Lipsky made during the five days – feel naturalistic, as if these two are inhabiting these characters and improvising what their talks likely would’ve been like.
The End of the Tour is such a phenomenal achievement, I had never read any of David Foster Wallace’s work and almost immediately after seeing the film, tried to find as much of his writings as I possibly could. The End of the Tour shows Wallace as a man who had a specific message he wanted to share with the world and somehow was able to impart that onto the world and gain admiration and love from millions of fans, yet it wasn’t enough to change the darkness that laid within him. Much like it’s seemingly impossible task to do what Wallace did, Ponsoldt equally is able to capture what made Wallace such a conflicted genius and that spirit that made him a truly important figure to so many.