The End of the Tour is directed by the very talented American filmmaker James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now and the upcoming adaptation of Dave Eggers’ The Circle) and written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies from David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’. It is a film that brilliantly takes a snapshot of the existential-anxieties of the mid 90’s while still remaining poignant and relevant to the present, documenting a myth-busting of a giant of contemporary literature, and a breakdown of the pedestaled trappings we often associate with celebrities and ‘geniuses’.
The End of the Tour captures the turning point in the lives of two brilliant men whose riveting conversations and thrilling, unpredictable relationship would reveal the fragility of aspiration as a double-edged sword. In a film full of often-crippling personal emotion, we see our ambitions, our anxiety of failure, and the potential for disillusioned loneliness at the heart of success, rise to the surface in these men. While there are events that drive the plot Ponsoldt and Margulies are committed to letting the conversations speak for themselves, ensuring that we hang onto every word uttered, and understand what these men individually draw from what is shared. It is Ponsoldt’s most sensitive and observant work to date, with much attention given to what is hanging in the space between the men.
The film chronicles a five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter and novelist Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal), which closely followed the 1996 publication of Wallace’s acclaimed groundbreaking novel, ‘Infinite Jest’. Wallace, credited at the time as one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years, was an unknown to the magazine, but Lipsky managed to convince his editor to fund an interview. Inquisitive and a little desperate, Lipsky travels to Wallace’s home on the outskirts of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, near the State University where Wallace teaches. With his tape recorder always at the ready Lipsky is permitted by Wallace to record their conversations, finding Wallace quietly spoken and amiable, but guarded. Wallace does open up to Lipsky on a variety of subjects, ranging from television to ideas of self-identity, and Lipsky accompanies him to Minneapolis-Saint Paul on the final leg of his book tour. While Lipsky would never write the article for Rolling Stone, his privileged experience would become the backbone for his memoir.
There is a moment early in the film that many writers and creative professionals will relate to and experience at some point in their life. Having read the initial rave reviews for the 1079 page goliath of a novel, Lipsky is skeptical. How could it possibly be that good? His girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) declares that he “had better read it”, and he is dumbstruck by its epic quality. In one of many brilliant decisions from Ponsoldt, he holds the camera on Eisenberg as he sits on the couch and reads. Suddenly Lipsky lets out a dejected sigh and murmurs: “shit”. As a writer of marginal success – his novel ‘The Art Fair’ has been met with polite indifference – this is an instance where he stares down the barrel of failure. He will never be this good. But, he is an opportunist and sees a story attached to Wallace and convinces his editor (Ron Livingston) to allow him to conduct the interview.
As many young men and women have preceded me I am in the process of tackling Wallace’s remarkable work, as hefty a novel as anything I have owned. Not content to let it gather dust on my shelf and inspired by the release of this film, I have set out on a journey of no return. Hitting trouble not far beyond page 100 I have needed to re-evaluate my approach to the novel. While you don’t need to have read the novel to take a lot away from this film, its themes are discussed on several occasions. But, if you accept Segal’s portrayal of Wallace to be largely accurate, then you will surely want to enter the mind of this man for several months afterwards.
The casting is perfect, and Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lipsky is of a twitchy, excitable snob – part-upstart and part-weasel. He wants to be a crack reporter, and be a buddy to Wallace. While his perspective on Wallace’s novel, and shared profession, should make him the perfect candidate for an exposé, perhaps he is too close to it all? Will he betray Wallace’s generous trust for the sake of the article? But aside from his petty tantrum when Wallace confronts him for flirting with his friend Betsie, he’s largely professional. Wallace at one point describes him as “pleasantly unpleasant” to be around, and Eisenberg is very often exactly this. Lipsky can’t help but use Wallace. He expects to leave this trip a better writer, to have drawn out of Wallace the secret to the craft. His jealousy is often apparent, and as he discovers that Wallace isn’t the man he imagined – and doesn’t have the answers he seeks – he becomes frustrated. This strains the relationship and we wait eagerly to see what sort of man Lipsky leaves the trip as. Segal gets the balance of Wallace’s cagey, guarded reluctance, and his willing and candid revelations. He is always aware of Lipsky’s agenda – he is writing an article after all – and understands that he is likely at odds with Lipsky’s fantasy and not accommodating to the brilliant article he imagined he will conjure up. Whether he comes across as a disappointment – he doesn’t shared Lipsky’s ‘high-brow’ taste – Wallace is constantly toying with him and we see that he is nervous and anxious about Lipsky’s interpretation of him.
While Wallace’s book is about the American experience, and the obsession with living an American life, we are no stranger here in Australia to the culture that he describes. There is a bombardment of stimuli. With so many texts and visual media at our disposal we are constantly trying to find a balance between maximum consumption while still living our lives. There has never been more television at our disposal, there are now more films released in cinemas and on home media platforms than ever before, there are centuries of novels to read and an infinite amount of music to listen to. The physicality of this media has been stripped away and is now present at our fingertips, within the tiny devices that populate even our down-time. We are always trying to quantify what we consume – but do we digest it? Do we take the time to savour what we experience, before we move onto the next one? While I haven’t worked through enough of ‘Infinite Jest’ to know for sure just what Wallace is going for with the novel, I feel like this is one of many strands of exploration.
This is just one of many discussion points in The End of the Tour, which makes a parallel between the consumption of media and fast-food. Wallace admits to addiction to alcohol and television (but denies the heroin rumour, an angle Lipsky is permitted to probe), the latter of which has always adopted the role of the fast-food of media stimuli. For a man of his undeniable intelligence, he enjoys the simple pleasures of eating McDonalds, drinking pepsi and watching John Travolta take a missile to the chest in Broken Arrow, which Lipsky, and Wallace’s friends’ Betsie and Julie, are appalled by during their visit to the Mall of America.
There is so much more to discuss with this film. It has inspired me to work harder on my writing, to lift my game with ‘Infinite Jest’, to further appreciate my time in this world. It is also incredibly difficult to shake, and left me feeling tremendously sad. In a perfect world we would just have the texts to consume – we read ‘Infinite Jest’ and we wonder what DNA has the man that wrote it? We wonder, but we go on with our lives. But, in such a world, myths must be busted. Rumours swirl, we sabotage one another, and we place unfair expectations upon the shoulders of our idols. What eventually sent Wallace over the edge we can never be sure, but for Dave Lipsky, Wallace was the epitome of everything that he wanted to be, and this film serves as a wonderful cinematic eulogy to him.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writer(s): Donald Margulies
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segal, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack
Runtime: 106 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: December 3, 2015 (Melbourne only)