The film itself is excellent, but the extra-textual questions it raises are even more so.
He wants something better than he has. I want precisely what he has already.
The End of the Tour is the type of film that’s very difficult to write about from a purely objective standpoint. As an (amateur) film critic there are few things that frustrate me more than people’s inability to separate biopics from actual history. Last year people complained that the incredible Selma wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the civil rights leader’s relationship with President Johnson, and that contention spawned a million articles chronicling the “real” story behind the film. Selma isn’t an accurate representation of history? Well, obviously it isn’t. It’s a narrative film, not a documentary. It’s frustrating to hear people raise trivial complaints about a film’s indebtedness to history when those same complainers probably couldn’t be bothered to crack a history book. A feature film’s allegiance is not to history, but rather to the story the film is presenting.
In Tim O’Brien’s seminal Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried there’s a chapter entitled “How to Tell a True War Story” where the author argues that it’s essentially impossible to relate factual historical events as narrative. Real life, he argues, is simply too complex. Things that seem unbelievable may have actually happened while the seemingly mundane parts of the story may be completely fictional. O’Brien argues that these obstacles can be avoided by hewing to the emotional truth of history, and letting the factual events fall as they may. In that way, your stories will be “true” and “real” whether they are factual or not. I think that’s a great lesson, and it’s the one I try to apply to films based on real life events. As such, Selma gets everything just right.
But The End of the Tour is something a little different, still. James Ponsoldt’s (The Spectacular Now) film chronicles writer David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) five days spent with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the end of his book tour promoting the novel Infinite Jest. That premise is simple enough, and it’s really the only plot summary you need for the film. The majority of the film consists solely of conversations between the two writers, many of them lifted directly from Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is, itself, direct transcriptions of Lipsky and Wallace’s recorded discussions from their week together. So, yes, The End of the Tour is a narrative feature film, but it’s also a presentation of only slightly refined real dialogue.
It’s kind of hard to know exactly just what it is, but if you simply sit back and watch, it’s an excellent film. The conversations are a joy to listen to, wrapped up in ideas of culture and self. It’s impossible for Wallace to escape the idea that his novel is going to bring him fame, and he struggles to define himself in the face of that reality. Infinite Jest’s publication was met with the type of rave reviews that you would expect if literary scholars suddenly found a previously unknown novel from William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway at the height of their powers. One reviewer states that all literary award competitions should be called off for the year because the winner is so obvious. The word “genius” gets thrown around a lot. But Wallace isn’t so sure about any of that. He still lives in a small Midwestern town, in a small Midwestern house with his two dogs. He likes attending church dances on the weekend and always wears his trademark bandanas. Everything about Wallace seems to stand in direct opposition to the “voice of a generation” tag he’s been saddled with. He seems blatantly uncool.
Lipsky, however, is the definition of what a “hip” writer would be. He juggles women, dating both his girlfriend in New York and seeing a woman on the side on the west coast. He convinces his boss at Rolling Stone to let him cover Wallace for the magazine. The dichotomy between the two writers gets a lot of play, with Lipsky often wondering to himself why Wallace gets to be hailed as a literary genius while his own novel languishes unread.
And what about Wallace’s insisted “regular guy” ethos? Is that the truth of David Foster Wallace, or is the writer just smart enough to understand that America loves regular guys? The whole thing could be a marketing ploy, and Wallace is brilliant enough to understand that the world may look at him that way. When Lipsky mentions that some critics question whether Wallace’s bandana is an attempt to connect to a younger audience, the writer asserts that such notions are untrue. But is it worse for Wallace to keep wearing his headgear and allow writers to make incorrect assumptions about it? Or to leave the bandana on, let critics think what they will, and be true to himself?
That’s the type of content you can expect from The End of the Tour. It strives to answer questions about culture and identity through its constant parade of conversations. That’s obviously not for everyone, but if you tend to love David Mamet and Jim Jarmusch then this film is probably right up your alley.
Tour wouldn’t work without a career-best performance from Jason Segel. You wouldn’t expect an actor best known for bromance comedies to have the type of range needed for a role as a conflicted literary genius, but Segel pulls it off perfectly. He manages to disappear into the role, and Segel’s “average man” appeal actually works in his favor, helping to portray the character as an unexpected genius. It’s a revelation to watch these two brilliant characters circle each other like gladiators conquesting in an intellectual ring as they discuss identity, the deeper meaning of reveling in pleasure from junk food, groupie sex, and the cultural reasons behind depression. As Lipsky tells a deflecting Wallace “You don’t crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author was a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant.”
Wallace constantly asserts that the idea of writers as tortured, brilliant men is wrong, and that he doesn’t find himself to be smarter than anybody else. If he’s haunted by depression it’s not because he’s misunderstood or more deeply in touch with humanity that anyone else — it’s because he suffers from the same bouts of despair as anyone else. Segel has done this type of work before, playing a sad but captivating character through the first half of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he utilizes that skill in spades in Tour.
Even while the film itself is often captivating, it’s hard to escape the extra-textual aspects of its production. The End of the Tour doesn’t ignore the real David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008. In fact, it uses Lipsky’s struggle with that news as a frame for the entire narrative, but how does that news effect the film itself? Did the knowledge that Wallace would eventually kill himself cause screenwriter Donald Marguiles to highlight instances of Wallace’s seemingly bipolar personality? Does Segel perhaps act with an overemphasis on melancholy? The source book was, itself, only published after Wallace’s suicide. If Wallace was still alive then the book, the film, and Lipsky’s literary reputation (Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself won Lipsky multiple awards, weirdly transforming Lipsky into the acclaimed author his character dreams of being in the film) all exist only because of what happens to Wallace years later. Surely a film as aware of cultural perception as The End of the Tour can’t be ignorant of these possibilities.
Wallace’s family refused to assist in the film’s adaptation, and some of his friends insist that it is not an accurate depiction of the author. That’s a conflicting idea considering the direct transcription of much of the film’s dialogue, but it only goes to show how words alone can be misleading. There are so many non-verbal things that influence how any conversation is read. I don’t think their concern could arise from a morality surrounding the film version of the Wallace character. He’s often warm and funny. If anyone, it’s the envious Lipsky who often comes across as a prick.
For what it’s worth, the film itself is completely watchable, but the extra-textual questions may be even more interesting. How can such a direct adaptation somehow fail to reveal a man in full? I’m sure that at least would be something that the late author would find infinitely more interesting than what play out on screen.