My relationship with the work of the late (and I think we can safely say great) writer David Foster Wallace, has been a recent development and one that seems to still be in bloom. And yeah, I’ll just admit that I hadn’t gone to the trouble of reading any of his stuff until I’d heard they were making a movie about him, which led me to read his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again as a bit of a primer. But after finishing it, about a month or so ago, I can say I am all on board with David Foster Wallace. He was clearly a phenomenally gifted and astute talent, and I have already committed to the idea that I am going to spend the Fall (and possibly Winter) months reading his 1,000 page opus Infinite Jest — a novel which serves as the focal point of the film The End Of The Tour, which has managed to even further fan the flames of my desire to spend that many hours and pages getting inside the head of just one guy.
David Lipsky, the real-life writer who was dispatched by Rolling Stone in 1996 to do a piece on the already reclusive Wallace and the newly released Infinite Jest, also clearly had this same desire to get inside Wallace’s head, because that’s pretty much all the film is. It’s more or less a series of conversations between Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Siegel) driving around in cars and having conversations about life and writing and the American consciousness, while Lipsky follows Wallace on the last leg of this book tour. Granted, the film is given a little more narrative heft than the actual conversations between Lipsky and Wallace, which supposedly served as the basis for a lot of the dialogue, though I don’t know how much of their conversations were used verbatim. But however much dialogue is actual transcribed conversation or something cooked up by screenwriter Donald Margulies, the back-and-forth’s between these two characters have a refreshing quality of being incredibly verbose and articulate, but never feel phony since they have this added resonance of being things that these two very smart guys actually said.
Still, even with the richness of these conversations and the film’s novel adherence to them, you still must have a certain caliber of actor that can ground this source material, and though I’ll admit I’ve had borderline man-crushes on both Siegel and Eisenberg for a while, they both managed to surprise and delight me with their work here. There are few actors that are capable of making neurotic introverts seem like oppourtunistic extroverts like Jesse Eisenberg, and that’s kind of what he’s doing here. Though we do get the sense of his Lipsky over the course of the film trying to, as Siegel’s Wallace at one point puts it “just be a good guy”, and naturally struggling with that since he is after all a Jesse Eisenberg character. And even though The End Of The Tour is on the surface about Lipsky hoping to paint some sort of portrait of this more acclaimed contemporary, the movie becomes just as much about Lipsky’s own insecurities as a failed novelist and how he measures his lack of success in contrast with Wallace’s actual success.
Siegel, on the other hand is admittedly more of a revelation, though it may have more to do with him taking so many safe, already forgotten comedies lately (like Sex Tape, and you know, that other one…) than whether he ever had it in him. Also, having watched/heard a few interviews with David Foster Wallace that are floating around online, I think Siegel does a nice job of intently capturing the man’s soft-spoken intelligence, but without overdoing any sort of mannerisms. To the point where one of the mannerisms Siegel actually did use was so specific and yet was employed at such a late point in the film, that I was actually impressed. It’s a facial tick I noticed Wallace use in his Charlie Rose interview a few times whenever he’d answer a question with a pretty well-informed and tactful answer, and yet because he’s talking instead of writing, you can tell he’s not entirely satisfied with the way he’d articulated the words. Which might be tied in to what makes Wallace such an interesting figure and even an interesting character in a movie — that he seemed like a guy who had it all figured out, or had at least figured out a very American-type of human emptiness, and yet was afraid to share it with anyone but his readers.
From what I can tell, another thing that also made David Foster Wallace a compelling figure, perhaps more so than a lot of his contemporaries in modern literature, is that in addition to his mastery of language and storytelling, was that there was a beating heart underneath. And if there’s any issues I have with the movie, it probably has to do with its second half, where director James Ponsoldt maybe lingers a little too much on the heartfelt bromance between Wallace and Lipsky, which at times feels a little more similar to the teenagers in Ponsoldt’s last film, The Spectacular Now, than a couple of writers in their 30s. But at the same time, I can tell you as well as anyone that writers are not typically very exciting protagonists, and I think the film does a nice job of blowing up both characters’ inherent flaws and fears and desires, but while also making it feel apiece with the ideas that Wallace was trying to convey in his work. Or at least, from what I can tell. Again, I’m still a David Foster Novice at this point.
There’s a sentiment my colleague John Otteni has pointed out before about certain movies or music, and it’s that it can sometimes be hardest to talk/write about the things you like the most. This review has been a hard one to write, not only because I like this movie a lot, but also because it’s one that feels like it falls so comfortably into the sweet spot of things I like to see in movies. I mean sure, as I’ve stated, it’s not like I’ve been obsessed with David Foster Wallace until recently, but this is a movie about writers wrestling with shit, is wall-to-wall dialogue, takes place mostly in Minnesota, and stars two actors whom I’d gladly watch read the phonebook. And maybe this skepticism is all intertwined with our modern niche-driven culture (which by the way was basically predicted by DFW in his 1990 essay E Unibus Pluram), where we’re basically becoming more and more comfortable with only liking things that are tailored towards us. But that’s just the way we humans are. We have these particular set of tastes, and though you can try to run from them, to quote David Foster Wallace just one last time, no matter what, of course you end up becoming yourself.