The End of the Tour is the fourth feature from James Ponsoldt, director of acclaimed coming-of-age film The Spectacular Now, and the lesser-known Smashed (2012) and Off the Black (2006). The film stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, the gifted writer and philosopher who committed suicide in 2008, and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist who was tasked with interviewing Wallace on the last leg of the book tour for his landmark novel, Infinite Jest. The screenplay was written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Donald Marulies, with conversations and plot sourced mostly from Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and additional filler being provided by Lipsky directly.
The only speech at James Ponsoldt’s wedding in 2010 was a reading of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, which was turned into a mini-novella as This Is Water in 2009. The audio is readily available on YouTube, and inclusive of people unfamiliar or impartial to Wallace’s writings and philosophies, it’s well worth a listen. It’s unlike any commencement address you’re likely to find, self-consciously dispelling the form for the sake of a prophetic-like message on the importance of mindfulness and self-controlled choice. It’s also a pretty accessible introduction to Wallace, both as a writer and as an apparent morality beacon.
Beyond moral rhetoric Wallace was a very complicated man: manipulative, profoundly self-absorbed and often far from saintly. He was also a genius, a mind so stunningly conscious he had a habit of recursive and deconstructive thinking over every detail of reality, leading to profound self-consciousness, social anxiety, and in conjunction with a complex chemical imbalance, the depression and psychosis that eventually killed him. He was also a profound marijuana addict. Unlike the deflective answers he gives on addiction as portrayed in The End of the Tour—which were probably true of his dialogue at the time—he did have a significant drug battle that ultimately led to months of rehab and a lifelong engagement with the 12-step recovery process. He was also a binge drinker, but given the cultural glamorisation of weed and how un-seriously it was (and is) taken as a drug of dependance, there’s a good chance he told people he had a drinking problem in place of the truth. He never had an issue with anything perceptively heavier, though as the film shows, many of his onlookers thought otherwise—something compounded by numerous bathroom visits at social events to spit out chewing tobacco being mistaken for a cocaine habit.
Primarily set in Wallace’s home, the snowy surroundings of winter-clad Illinois have been poetically shot by cinematographer Jakob Ihre. Some sequences are stylistically reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though the occasional use of sunlight-flared shaky-cam as mechanism for magnifying emotion may come across a little obvious unless you’re fully engaged with the narrative. I certainly didn’t have that problem.
Ponsoldt’s film does Lipsky’s account of Wallace some beautiful justice. The filmmaking style and nuances exhibited in The Spectacular Now have been dialled-up to such poignancy that even the Wallace-uninitiated will likely find themselves captivated by the character, moved by his passing, and compelled to explore his life and work further. It’s been shaped with a cerebral subtlety and delicate balance, completely original in a way that allows the two characters to captivate us with little else but their conversation. Jason Segel portrays Wallace with earnest, mimicking his mid-western vocal cadences and physicality well (though admittedly, far from perfectly), and in doing so delivers the performance of his career. Eisenberg’s performance seemed more Eisenberg than Lipsky but is equally as impressive on its own terms. It’ll be surprising if neither are nominated for an Oscar.
The End of the Tour is a mature, intelligent piece of biopic filmmaking that pays high respect to Wallace’s legions of fans, showcasing the writer to the world with incredible reverence and restraint while refraining from any sense of Hollywood sensationalism. Those close to him have essentially boycotted the film on the basis of Wallace’s assumed protest and the incompleteness of the portrayal, but the fact remains that without it, millions of people may have never even heard of him. Since seeing the trailer several months ago I’ve absorbed dozens of hours of Wallace-related audio and video, read the majority of his non-fiction, read his biography, and am several hundred pages into Infinite Jest with an eye to finish his entire catalogue before moving on to Franzen, Leyner and Updike. That wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for this film, and assuming I’m not alone, surely that’s not a bad thing.