Even if you’ve never read any of David Foster Wallace’s books (and to my great shame, I haven’t yet), James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour provides an emotional, compelling portrait of a man struggling against public perception, his insecurities, and loneliness. Jason Segel’s astonishing performance draws us into the author, and while it may not be a 100% accurate portrayal, it feels honest and honorary without every being cloying or sugarcoated. Rather than present a hagiography of a literary genius we lost too soon, the director carefully explores what the notion of “literary genius” even means, and how we relate to people who are unsure of how to relate to others and even themselves.
Framed by the report of Wallace’s suicide in 2008, the movie takes us back to 1996, and a five-day interview between Wallace and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). Lipsky, who recently published his own novel, accompanies Wallace on the final days of his book tour promoting Infinite Jest, a work proclaimed an instant classic upon its release. Eager to learn about the man whose book has earned him comparisons to Hemingway and Vonnegut, Lipsky asks probing questions, and although he and Wallace begin to form a bond, they can’t escape their own doubts, jealousies, and misperceptions about the other.
After seeing Ponsoldt’s Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and now The End of the Tour, it’s clear that the director has a great talent for empathizing with characters who aren’t “broken” or “damaged (those words are a little too grandiose for movies that play so realistically) but hurting. They’re consumed with doubt, fear, and loneliness, and that pain has turned inwards. Although Wallace’s feelings may be more pronounced, he and Lipsky are kindred spirits to some extent, and their camaraderie rests on how honest they’re willing to be with each other, not just in terms of answering each other’s questions, but in how they unintentionally cause the other to suffer from their own insecurities. For Wallace, he envies Lipsky’s outgoing charm, and Lipsky wishes he had Wallace’s talent and recognition.
“This is nice,” Wallace tells Lispky, “but it’s not real.” Although their relationship is built on artifice—two guys laying their emotions bare because one is interviewing the other for a magazine—Ponsoldt makes us the third man on their trip, which helps us tap into the realism of the situation. We’re not just a fly on the wall; we’re standing in the room with them, or in the backseat of their car, listening in but never acknowledged. We can see how their conversations can be pieced together in an article, but as Wallace points out (in his typically incisive yet casual way), that article will likely be misleading. Ponsoldt isn’t trying to correct Lipsky’s narrative (also note that I haven’t read his book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which provided the source material), but he’s trying to put us alongside his main characters, and while the movie does run on a little long, it also draws us into the intimate, complicated relationship between these two men.
But for all of Ponsoldt’s great work, the film hinges on whether or not Segel can effectively play a revered figure like Wallace—a daunting task for any actor, let alone one who is largely associated with comedy. Thankfully, Segel is fantastic and delivers his best performance to date. He disappears into the role by taking on an entirely different cadence, softening his speech, making himself look smaller, and yet always embracing the character’s keen insight and intellect. Through Segel, we see Wallace’s complex inner life, and it makes for not just a fascinating character study, but for a performance that’s both tragic and funny. Eisenberg is terrific as always, but the movie truly belongs to Segel.
As The End of the Tour started heading to its conclusion, I began to wonder if this movie would exist if Wallace were still alive. Would Lipsky have written his book if Wallace hadn’t committed suicide? Does the emotional resonance of their conversation in 1996 hinge on Wallace’s death twelve years later? To Ponsoldt’s great credit, the movie’s primary interest isn’t in trying to figure out why Wallace chose to end his own life. It acknowledges that Wallace suffered from depression and was a bit of a tortured genius, albeit a soft-spoken, self-deprecating one. However, the author isn’t defined by his suicide even though it provides the framing device. We lost a great man, but he was great partially because of his flaws. Ponsoldt and Segel embrace those flaws, and in so doing provide a touching film that’s not a dedication or celebration, but a powerful portrait of a sad, funny, and altogether unique writer.
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