Sundance 2015: ‘The End of the Tour’ a quiet, affecting primer on the life of David Foster Wallace

The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour

Directed by James Ponsoldt

Written by David Lipsky and Donald Marguiles

The End of the Tour is the next offering from director James Ponsoldt, who brought us Smashed and The Spectacular Now. With The End of the Tour he takes us on another odyssey of a mind struggling to survive itself. The late author David Foster Wallace was revered during his time for the novel Infinite Jest and made a significant impact on literature before killing himself in 2008. This film dramatizes a few days in 1996 when Foster Wallace allowed a Rolling Stone reporter to visit and interview him at length. What emerges during the course of their casual and profound conversations is a cinematic think piece about loneliness, success, and American consumerism.

Foster Wallace was an intensely private man who retreated to write and live alone with his dogs in a small, isolated town far away from the oppressive praise of the literary scene. Played here by Jason Segel (Jeff Who Lives at Home) Foster Wallace comes across as a man who has no vested interest in anything but writing and the comfort of his canine companions. David Lipky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a reluctant interviewer, not eager to face Foster Wallace and retrieve from him the emotional scoop that his editor desires. The beginning of the film is on shaky ground, with the audience unsure how to evaluate exactly how authentically the characters are being inhabited. This also may have to do with Lipsky and Foster Wallace being so ill at ease with one another but as the questions become pressurized with revelations of information and emotions- the flow of the dialogue becomes natural. Segel gives Foster Wallace his all, sharply emulating his mannerisms and expertly cringing at invasive questions that hit a little too close to home.

The writers tread the line of friendship but are derailed repeatedly by mutual jealousy and mistrust. Lipsky cautiously approaches Foster Wallace at first but then becomes too cavalier in asking him about his family and a mental breakdown. Foster Wallace likewise knows how to pluck Lipsky’s nerves- by making him call his girlfriend (who is a great admirer of Infinite Jest) and then talking to her at length. The most compelling aspect of The End of the Tour is the condensed, tension-filled rivalry between the authors. Each longs for aspects of the other’s life- Lipsky hungers for Foster Wallace’s renown and talent while his subject yearns for a peace of mind with modern society that he has never felt. Foster Wallace was upset by the mass consumerism, pop culture and the increasing presence of electronically dependent pleasure in our lives. He believed this dependency was an ever encroaching dark abyss that would one day swallow our humanity. There’s a constant self-loathing and crisis of conscience going on within Foster Wallace that Segel skillfully intertwines with moments of brief joy. He can barely stand to set step in real American culture but each time he does, Segel portrays him as fleetingly happy and then so immersed in it that he is paralyzed by its hollowness.

For as much as Lipsky tries to encapsulate Foster Wallace’s mind by prying into his personal belongings or emotional baggage- the writer wants to remain unknowable. Eisenberg usually plays a quick-tongued kid that bests the antagonist with his wit but in this film he is given the challenge of listening intently to someone who needs for some things to be private and just doesn’t want his legacy twisted. Knowing in the first few moments of the film that Foster Wallace killed himself sets a morose tone that gives the smallest moments gravitas. Aided by an absorbing score by Danny Elfman, Eisenberg and Segel are dutiful in giving the time that these two men spent together meaning.

Not much happens in The End of the Tour except contemplation and observation as two writers suss out their philosophies on life. This is not a glamorized biopic of a troubled writer but an appreciation of an American literary giant who had problems that he didn’t want to share beyond mediating on them abstractly through his work. He might have taken issue with any portrayal of his thoughts as he anxiously wanted approval over what Lipsky intended to write but would have at least signed off on the aspect of the film that takes into consideration his objections and partly extols his warnings about the shallow grave of rational thought being dug that wholly digital lives will bring.

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