When Infinite Jest was released in the mid-’90s, author David Foster Wallace became a hero to many of his generation, who were looking for a writer to represent them as Hemingway and Fitzgerald had represented a previous generation. This was certainly true of David Lipsky, himself a writer of fiction and a magazine writer, who while working for Rolling Stone managed to secure an interview with Wallace, even though Rolling Stone didn’t interview writers.
This is the subject of John Ponsoldt’s insightful The End of the Tour, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Donald Margulies, based on Lipsky’s book. It is a rare thing–a movie for book nerds, but I think anyone who enjoys good conversation and character studies will enjoy this film.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky, and when the film begins he is hearing the 2008 news that Wallace has committed suicide. He digs out his old tapes and reminisces about the interview he conducted in 1996, when Wallace was finishing his book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky spends a day with him in Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace teaches, and then to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Wallace does a reading/signing and an NPR interview.
Eisenberg is as you would expect him, full of nervous energy, ferret eyes darting, but Jason Segel as Wallace is the film. Segel is of course known for his Apatow comedies, so nobody could have foreseen a performance of such depth and pain, But it is one of the best performances of this and any year. Part of the success is due to Wallace’s easily mimicked look–scruffy, long lank hair, and bandanna, which Wallace is distressed to learn is thought of as an affectation, when he really wears it as something of a security blanket.
Wallace wants to be thought of as a regular guy, but as Lipsky points out, no one reads a 1,000-page novel because the author is a regular guy. Wallace is caught in a bind–he is brilliant, but still floats in a lonely miasma, living alone with two dogs, with no television because he is a TV addict. He fancies that these book tours might get him laid, but that seems like macho bluffing. He seems like a man stuck between the pantheon of greatness and the down-homeness of a Denny’s. To wit–he is a big fan of Alanis Morrisette, and wonders if he mentions this in the article it will get him a chance to meet her.
Most of the film is conversation between the two, a kind of My Dinner With Andre extended over a few days. They go to the Mall of America, pass by (but do not visit) the statue of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in Minneapolis, and spend an evening watching TV with Wallace’s former grad school girlfriend. This gives the film a crux of conflict, as Wallace thinks Lipsky is flirting with her. But really, Lipsky’s intention is even more nefarious–he wants to get information about Wallace from her.
Ponsoldt’s direction is largely unobtrusive, with no camera tricks. The lighting by Jakob Ihre is about as unglamorous as it gets–downstate Illinois during winter looks about as inviting as a plague zone. I’m sure this is all to focus more on the dialogue, which is rich with a kind of cat and mouse game–Wallace is flattered to be interviewed, but doesn’t want to give too much away.
The only Wallace I’ve read is his last, unfinished book, The Pale King, which was something of a paean to boredom. I once owned Infinite Jest, which is kind of becoming the Moby Dick of our time–everyone talks about it, though no one has read it. I lost my copy in a flood in my apartment, but I’m game to try it, even if it is over 1,000 pages. Segel relates that when he bought the book the female cashier rolled her eyes and said that every guy she had ever dated had an unread copy of the book on their shelves.
My grade for The End of the Tour: A-.