Ever since the death of author David Foster Wallace back in 2008, he has been codified as a malleable commodity in the literary world. Some view him as a post-modern philosopher, others are slightly more generous in their view of him as a force of counterculture; the bandana, the hypertext spoken delivery, the dense writing pattern all contributing to the making of a mythic figure who embodied the perfect sensibility of someone capable enough of carrying the burden of being labelled a ‘literary genius’ and yet writing with the kind of humanism and immediacy that was at once cerebral yet emotionally honest.
This preface is important to keep in mind before diving into any sort of discussion about The End of the Tour, the latest feature of director James Ponsoldt.1 The screenplay, adapted for the screen by Donald Margulies, is based on the book Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. Lipsky was a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine sent to profile Wallace back in 1996 during the final leg of his Infinite Jest tour. The profile never eventuated. However, after Wallace’s demise, Lipsky went through his interview tapes of his time with Wallace and released his book which is part long-form interview and part humanistic portrait of the issues that were recurring thematic concerns in Wallace’s work and his outlook on life.
Popular culture has oft-reduced Wallace’s humanism to a cruel footnote. He is the guy who wrote that Roger Federer piece (Roger Federer as a Religious Experience) or that impenetrable novel (Infinite Jest) that everyone claims to have started reading but few have actually finished. This is the central dilemma in approaching The End of the Tour, as Margulies’ screenplay intends to sell DFW to the masses. It’s a film that’s very much about shaping the image of DFW without ever wanting to be seen as the kind of the film that would do such a thing. Or as Wallace put it: wanting to be in Rolling Stone magazine without being seen as the guy who wants to be in Rolling Stone.
One of the ways the screenplay tries to resolve this inherent tension is by making Lipsky’s character the catalyst for the narrative. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky, relying once again on his patented fast talking and slightly neurotic smartass character archetype. Lipsky ends up being a clever contrast to Segel’s demure and laidback Wallace. Together, they explore the tricky relationship between the interviewer and his subject (and how the interviewer has the power to shape his subject the way he/she wants), the paradox of fame, professional jealousy, the subconscious allure of entertainment and individual gratification, addiction, loneliness as a consequence of modern existence and finally, depression.
In the vast spread of discursive topics that it covers, the film becomes a meta-commentary about how we ought to live our lives in a world that conditions us to serve our desires above anything else. Post-modern life is all about ‘me’: my desires, my needs, my rights and everyone being in my way stopping me to get what I want. The need for gratification, that Wallace termed the ‘arsehole problem’, is one of the more easily recognisable motifs in his work.
Though Segel’s portrayal doesn’t capture the complexities of Wallace’s personality holistically, it is still a mostly impressive performance. Wallace here is suitably downplayed, addicted to television, absolutely in love with his dogs and constantly worried about coming across as some kind of fraud. When Segel delivers dialogue about Wallace’s inner sadness and loneliness, there is a searing emotional honesty in those scenes that is raw and transcendental.
On one hand, where the film manages to get Wallace’s humanistic portrait right for the most part, it falls away drastically when it comes to capturing his distinctive cerebral style. The blame here rests not on Segel’s shoulders, but rather on screenwriter Donald Margulies’. In an effort to be able to sell the image of DFW to the masses, his screenplay simplifies Wallace’s hypertext speech delivery into easily digestible but ultimately reductive tidbits.
The film also wanders slightly when it deviates from sparkling chemistry between Eisenberg and Segel, though there are some strong supporting performances: Joan Cusack nails her portrayal as Wallace’s typically overenthusiastic publicist and Anna Chlumsky amuses as Sarah, Lipsky’s girlfriend who gushes over Wallace’s writing, giving Eisenberg plenty of room to display his neurotic arsehole routine in full flight.
Darrin Navarro’s editing complements the dramatic points that Margulies has set-up in his screenplay. When Eisenberg and Segel have discursive conversations, the pacing acquires a fluid languidness that allows the audience to properly engage with the myriad ‘big picture’ ideas and life wisdom that the film indulges in. Conversely, during heightened dramatic sequences, the editing is short and sharp, punctuating the tension between Segel and Eisenberg.
The cinematography by Jakob Ihre helps establish the minimalist nature of the film. Ihre wonderfully captures the deserted and vast expanse of snow, establishing the minimalist backdrop. Repeated shots of Segel and Lipsky driving together helps keep the narrative focus on the two leads. The continued mythologisation of Wallace is overt but ultimately effective, as the camera is mostly preoccupied with Segel’s reactions and responses to Eisenberg’s incessant questions. Danny Elfman’s background score and the choice of indie tracks acts as a placeholder for the film: an ode to the iconoclasm of David Foster Wallace masquerading as a minimalist road movie.
The End of the Tour is not the resurrection of David Foster Wallace. The best way to attempt to understand him is still very much through his own words, his own writing. Yet, Ponsoldt’s feature is able to shed light on Wallace’s humanism, an aspect that will undoubtedly make his work and personality more accessible and slightly less impenetrable for the mass audience.