There was a time, not all that long ago, when writers could become cultural icons in this society — endangered emissaries who, like canaries in a coal mine, sniff out the poison seeping from the rank spigots of our popular culture. The late, great David Foster Wallace was such an author. Wallace’s prose, a kind of rococo thicket that belied deep veins of compassion and understanding, acted as a funhouse mirror reflecting back our malaise in a discursive, catch-all style that was frustrating, assaultive, revelatory and liberating, often all at once.
Wallace is the subject of director James Ponsoldt’s wonderfully observed new film, The End of the Tour. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the movie is little more than a chamber piece for two: Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is sent by Rolling Stone during the winter of 1996 to join Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail end of a book tour for his epic novel Infinite Jest, which has become a huge (figuratively and, at 1,000-plus pages, literally) hit with the literati.
Despite the narrowness of the film’s focus and the seeming singleness of its intent -— i.e., reporter profiles famous writer — what ensues between Wallace and Lipsky is intricately fascinating and oddly moving. As Lipsky doggedly, and a bit enviously, peppers Wallace with question after question about writing and fame, the two engage in a complicated jujitsu of understanding, part baffled discovery, part struggling self-definition.
Lipsky, who just published his first novel to little acclaim, wants to unearth the intimate secrets of Wallace’s genius; Wallace, uncomfortable with his newfound celebrity, insists he’s nothing special, just a regular guy with a knack for portraying the confusions of his own mind. “There’s nothing more grotesque than somebody going around saying, ‘I’m a writer, I’m a writer, I’m a writer,’” Wallace says at one point, revealing his discomfort with the sudden attention he’s getting.
And, over the course of a handful of frustrating, assaultive, revelatory and liberating days, a tentative yet tender friendship develops.
The End of the Tour is the unlikeliest of cinematic endeavors: a film about a pair of very interesting guys sitting around — at home, in cars, in hotel rooms — talking about art, fame, the wages of creativity, the pitfalls of success and the delights of Die Hard, junk food and Alanis Morrisette.
And it’s riveting. Ponsoldt, whose 2013 film The Spectacular Now was one of the sleeper hits of the year, has the perfect touch for this stuff; he treats the evolution of the two writers’ relationship as a really smart buddy film. The dialogue, culled from Lipsky’s memoir, is both sharp and full of unreconstructed vernacular. When Wallace teasingly calls Lipsky a “dick brain,” the combination of deprecation and warmth is just right.
Wallace killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46. The End of the Tour captures the bittersweet sadness of this loss, but the movie never mucks about in the easy tragedy of yet another suicided artist.
Rather, the film celebrates Wallace’s humanity: his playfulness, his fears, his eccentricity, his ordinariness and, yes, his brilliance. It neither dismantles nor construes a myth. And by staying so close to the ground, and thanks to strong performances by Eisenberg and especially Segel, it triumphs as a work of art.
The End of the Tour opens Friday, Aug. 21, at Bijou Art Cinemas.