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  • “The End of the Tour,” starring Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Jason Segal, avoids biopic clichés and instead treats audiences to stimulating conversations between the writers David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace.
    Photo courtesy of Kilburn Media
    “The End of the Tour,” starring Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Jason Segal, avoids biopic clichés and instead treats audiences to stimulating conversations between the writers David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace.

“The End of the Tour” Gives A Brilliant Portrait Of A Great Thinker

Dan Gvozden
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August 26, 2015

Praised by many though read by few is the modern masterpiece “Infinite Jest,” a 1,104-page novel complete with more than 100 pages of footnotes. The dense novel, described by some as encyclopedic, is likely being used by many as a sturdy doorstop, but bursting out of its daunting mass of pages is a clear and unique voice of a dazzling thinker. That thinker is the late David Foster Wallace, a college professor and novelist whose tragic suicide in 2008 shocked the literary world.

It is unlikely that a film could ever find a way to translate “Infinite Jest” (one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century) to the screen. Director James Ponsoldt and writer David Margulies have instead adapted a David Lipsky novel, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” detailing a five-day road trip spent with Wallace. In “The End of the Tour,” the young Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer, concocts a road trip after his initial reading of “Infinite Jest” as a way to meet Wallace and hopefully find a story that he can sell to his editor. The guarded Wallace reluctantly agrees to be shadowed for the final leg of “Infinite Jest”’s book tour, with the hope that he can find a way to dictate the content of the piece and control his public image.

While the reaction to Wallace’s death frames “The End of the Tour,” the film avoids the biopic cliché of presenting the subject’s life as a mere timeline of events. Instead, audiences are treated to stimulating conversations between the two writers as they traverse the bleak, snow-covered landscapes of Bloomington, Illinois.

Like “My Dinner With Andre,” the conversation between the two is so packed with revealing ideas, philosophies and observations that one could sprain a wrist taking notes. Lipsky described Wallace’s writing as having “your eyelids pulled open” and spending time with the filmic representation of Wallace produces a similar feeling of intellectual whiplash.

As enlightening as the conversations between Lipsky and Wallace are, it’s the inherent conflict between their personalities and intentions that suffuse “The End of the Tour” with dramatic conflict. Lipsky has his own selfish intentions with Wallace, as well as an editor encouraging him to push Wallace to reveal his history with drug addiction. While Wallace seems forthright and accommodating at first, audiences and Lipsky quickly learn that there are several lines he’s unwilling to cross. Like David, audiences will desire to probe Wallace’s mind but will also invest real worry that this wonderful conversation could end at any moment if the wrong questions are asked.

The success of “The End of the Tour” is wholly dependent on the characters being clearly defined, so that every word, gesture, look or smile is layered with meaning. Jason Segel turns in a career-defining performance as David Foster Wallace that brings out the conflicted nature of the man. Wallace is a longhaired, scrappy, hippie-looking man whom one might quickly dismiss. His body language is laid-back and casual, and his taste in food caters to the worst in the culinary world: When offered to dine on Rolling Stone’s budget, Wallace chooses McDonald’s as fine dining. Wallace has little desire for the spotlight he finds himself in, recognizing just how hollow the façade of fame actually is. Segel’s comedy career has prepared him well to be comfortable and unpretentious in front of the camera, selling Wallace as an American first and incredible intellectual second, but never as a deity.

Jesse Eisenberg’s characterization of David Lipsky finds the actor operating in familiar territory but continuing a string of nuanced and sharp performances. Lipsky, a New Yorker, often feels out of place in Wallace’s world, like a wolf among domesticated dogs. Lipsky’s intentions seem noble, but the nature of his career and personality find him unintentionally pushing Wallace’s buttons. Eisenberg operates as the audience’s surrogate, a somewhat jealous and opportunistic man pushing to find out more about how Wallace’s fascinating mind works.

Director James Ponsaldt has abandoned the controlled, romantic and crafty style of his previous film, “The Spectacular Now,” for a handheld, grainy, home video aesthetic that helps sell the authenticity, spontaneity and low-key nature of the picture. Even still, Ponsaldt is sure to allow the camera to explore the landscapes of snow-covered Illinois, the sprawling Mall of America and the endless rows of cars that make up airport parking lots from afar. These visual choices cleverly contrast the close-up, private conversations with the world around them. Where better for the Davids to discuss the culture of materialism than in the biggest mall in America?

The best that can be said about “The End of the Tour” is that David Foster Wallace would likely appreciate the film as a somber tribute, reflection of a short friendship and a continuation of the conversations that he engaged in during his lifetime. For a film that is so obsessed with the existential emptiness of modern culture, it is surprising that it is also completely entertaining, uplifting and brimming with wisdom and humor. If all films in the cinema provided such a reminder of the things that make life worth living, perhaps Wallace’s described existential emptiness could be filled, if only momentarily.

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