Talking Movies: ‘The End of the Tour’ aims high, stumbles

The End of the Tour
Jason Segel plays celebrity author David Foster Wallace. — still via The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour

Screening Sept. 4 through Sept. 10 at FilmScene

It’s tricky making a movie based on a book of interviews with a guy concerned about being interviewed because no matter what, he’ll seem disingenuous. The guy in question is David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), and his interviewer is David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). James Ponsoldt, director of The End of the Tour, half succeeds, and the film is at its best when the characters are actually discussing, in a somewhat meta way, that problem of the relationship between character and viewer, subject and interviewer.

The movie comes from Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a phrase Wallace said and Lipsky recorded for a Rolling Stone profile of Wallace while on the tail end of the book tour for Infinite Jest. Some of the dialogue in the movie comes straight from the book—or straight from Wallace, depending on how much mediation you’re comfortable removing. Segel’s Wallace talks in a deadpan laced with wonderment and also anxiety: He is uncomfortable with his newfound fame, worrying about how he’ll seem to all these people suddenly watching him.

(It’s worth remembering that, in Wallace’s TV essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he said part of the joy of TV-watching is being able to watch others without being watched yourself: “Self-conscious people’s oversensitivity to real humans tends to put us before the television and its one-way window in an attitude of relaxed and total reception, rapt … For 360 minutes per diem, we receive unconscious reinforcement of the deep thesis that the most significant quality of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching”).

In The End of the Tour, Wallace faces a fame catch-22: If he pretends he’s ok with all the attention, he’ll be portrayed as attention-seeking. But if he shows he’s not okay with all the attention, it’ll seem like just another way of seeking attention.

This anxiety pops up again and again in the movie, surrounded by talk of writing and self-consciousness and Lipsky’s project itself. Some of the conversation is profound, and some of it just sounds profound. It’s least meaningful when it’s most obvious—that is, when it’s serving the Dave vs. David duality that drives what little plot there is. Lipsky wants to be a successful and famous writer, and Wallace already is a successful and famous writer, though he’s not sure he wants to be. If you’ve read enough Wallace essays, not to mention Infinite Jest, that duality may seem fuller than it actually is in the movie; it’s impossible not to draw from Wallace’s written musings on fame and entertainment while listening to Segel say vaguely related things on screen.

On the other hand, if you haven’t read much Wallace, the portrait you’ll get is of a man obsessed with TV and junk food and his dogs, a man who’s famous but uneasy about it, and thinks of little else.

Then there are the women. They’re few and far between in The End of the Tour. The two with the most screen time are a couple of Wallace’s friends, whom Wallace and Lipsky hang out with in Minneapolis, the last stop of the tour. These women are two-dimensional characters at best, tools that help construct the two-man love story and further the Dave vs. David complications. In that sense, they’re lazy plot devices.

As are the movie’s beginning and end, which frame The End of the Tour as the neat, sentimental story of two men brought together by fiction and (understandable, if inexcusable) ego. That may have been the actual case, but since The End of the Tour is at least partially fictionalized, it need not be the case. The movie begins with Lipsky learning Wallace is dead, and then pulling his interview tapes out of storage; it ends with Lipsky reading from what we assumed is Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a tear rolling down his cheek, interspersed with scenes of Wallace dancing at a Baptist church. The trouble with these scenes is that they say more about our relentless need for happy endings (even though we all know this story didn’t end happily at all) than about either of the protagonists. As a consequence, Ponsoldt’s movie turns Wallace into the caricature he feared he’d become in Lipsky’s profile.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 182.

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