I was fretting over how to write about James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour before the film even began. Starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as renowned writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky respectively, the picture documents Lipsky's four-day interview of Wallace during the closing days of the press tour for the author's magnum opus Infinite Jest.
Wallace and his work (Infinite Jest in particular) have been formative and dear to me in a way that's difficult to express without sounding disturbed. Wallace's prose is absolutely singular, combining brilliant playful formalism, gleeful trivia and an unabashed devotion to raw sincerity. Whether discussing the nature of irony in modern America, the workings of a Boston halfway house, or the tortures of a luxury cruise, Wallace was an electric stylist. Sentences fold back in on themselves and then bloom outwards. Strenuous and painstaking attention to setting revels in the poetry of jargon. In Infinite Jest scenes of immense humor and breathtaking emotion bleed into one another in a unique literary mania. To read Wallace is to be engulfed, enthralled, and energized, but you would never know it from Ponsoldt's film.
In stark comparison to David Foster Wallace's writing (and even the full transcript of Lipsky's interview, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, The End of the Tour feels sluggish and disoriented. Moving between settings and conversation topics, the film searches for emotional climaxes, mining Wallace's depression, substance abuse, and volatile moods as fodder for quote-unquote big moments. Segel does a fine job in the movie, but seems to be turning in a stellar performance as someone else. In fact, the times when I most enjoyed the picture were those moments when I willed myself to forget it was about Wallace at all, and block out the script's name dropping.
Affecting a strange midwestern-surfer-dude-drawl, Segel plays Wallace as a sedate open book, excited by the energies of American culture but lost when it comes to forming something like lasting happiness from them. As a central theme the inadequacy of socially accepted modes of satisfaction (sex, fame, wealth) is a promising one, but Donald Margulies screenplay does little to tease anything interesting from Wallace's own engagement with these ideas in his work. Not once do we get a taste of Wallace's writing, and the one time the film decides to paraphrase a portion of Infinite Jest, what was once a stunning, vivid, and immediate piece of prose is reduced to something enervating and instructive.
Really, at no point do Marguiles and Ponsoldt find anyway to tap into what made Wallace's mind and writing so powerful to so many. In one scene, Eisenberg and Segel sit in the Mall of America chowing down while the camera captures them obediently in two-shot. Watching this, I could only imagine what sort of balletics Wallace's work might make of this environment, what energy and humor he might tease out of the massing crowds or pluck from the indoor roller coaster. But at no point does the camera dare itself to attempt this. Where Tour's subject worked constantly to find something new to attempt in his art form, the film itself is content to simply waddle along, while Lipsky and the other characters assure us that Wallace is brilliant. Never are we treated to a how or a why. The genius has no life or texture.
That's not to say that great cinema cannot come of exactly the setup of Ponsoldt's movie, that in order to be worthwhile a picture must constantly be in motion. My Dinner with Andre and Richard Linklater's Before trilogy both find dynamism in simple static conversation. But this is because they mine for specificity in language and in character. Dialogues build and compound organically, and each new subject feels charged by subjects past. The End of the Tour is either unable or unwilling to strive for this sort of specificity. Attention to Wallace's eating habits, taste in clothing, and love of pop culture are touched on, but these moments feel like perfunctory fan service, as if it's a contractual obligation to include two dogs and a bandanna in any movie about the late author. By disassembling Wallace and Lipsky's four day interview Margulies robs the conversation of its momentum. Instead of the gradual evolution of an intimacy between two men, two writers, Tour feels like a race to hit key points, to include key quotes. Wallace mentions perspiration, but the film doesn't have the patience to give the anxiety weight. There's reference to drinking, but the movie seems content to use Wallace's own standoffishness to excuse any further emotional investigation.
As a result, the film's bookends (flash-forwards to 2008 as Lipsky hears of Wallace's suicide) feel cheap and unearned. Eisenberg relistens to these old conversations and weeps, but the outpouring felt forced. Never does it seem like these men really form a lasting bond. Sure, they exchange phone numbers and addresses at the end, but so what? From all that talking there's little sense of growth or chemistry. Yes, Lipsky is jealous of Wallace's talent and enthralled in their talks, but the theme of artistic envy was addressed with far more depth and energy by last year's Frank. When Wallace and Lipsky part ways at the close of the interview, the former sends the latter off with a line of dialogue so painfully on the nose I cringed. The next time we see the author he is dancing in a sunlit church while Eisenberg's voice over promises that this trip was indeed meaningful.
At one point towards the end of the picture, an annoyed Lipsky accuses Wallace of pretending not to know how smart he is. Furious, the journalist argues that no one cracks open a one thousand page book because they believe the author is a regular guy. Perhaps Ponsoldt could have taken that advice. No one wants to sit through a 106 minute movie because they think it's packed with regular insight. Leaving the theatre, I could not help but think back to Infinite Jest itself, and the motto of one of its protagonists' family, the Incandenzas. To crudely adapt the writing on that crest: They can kill you, but making an engaging movie about your legacy is quite a bit dicier.