The makers of this well-acted and moderately absorbing docudrama know how to hold the interest of the viewer, even if they avoid resolving the questions they raise. But those questions themselves are intriguing, and so rarely dealt with in a movie.
Director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies both saw the inherent appeal: just how will two published writers relate to each other, especially if only one of them is famous and successful? The very question suggests a story that, as a writer, I find compelling. In this case, the story is a true one: David Lipsky, a staff reporter for Rolling Stone, who has published his own novel – to a meh reception – gets his editor to subsidize his following David Foster Wallace on the promotional tour for his novel Infinite Jest, which has dozens of critics falling all over themselves to praise.
The tour takes place in 1996, but we know Wallace will commit suicide in 2008. The film is Lipsky’s chronicle of the tour; also a rather off-key kind of memorial. Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, fits neatly into the “arrogant young novelist” mold, a guy who sees every situation as a contest for control. And Wallace, played by Jason Segel, is not really different in that regard. Although he agreed to the interview, he seems aware at the outset that Lipsky will try to transform every detail of his life into what “the public” expects him to be.
This is the kind of story where two people keep needling each other with hidden subtexts, and we watch in anticipation of a victory of some kind for one of them. In terms of keeping us watching, the film succeeds by generating this kind of dramatic suspense. One clever ploy by Wallace – who is both frightened and irritated by Lipsky – is to volley the interviewer’s questions right back at him, as in “So why is it that you’re not married, David?” As well-rehearsed as he is, Lipsky is always surprised when it happens. His stammering responses are, in fact, the funniest parts of the film.
But whether the dramatic resolution is satisfying is a different question entirely. After all, I knew the outcome: Lipsky would finish the tour with Wallace, but the story would not be published and the two would not have much contact any more. As a result, I knew that I couldn’t expect much in the way of surprises – like Wallace trying to kill Lipsky with a pitchfork, for instance – so my satisfaction with the film would depend on its insights into Wallace’s character, specifically as to the reason(s) for his suicide some twelve years later.
On that question, the results are mixed. The most significant insight – an irony, really – is that Wallace spent years struggling to become a famous writer, but that, when he finally achieved this goal, he couldn’t bear to live with it. This was because he was terrified of not being viewed by the public as the “unique” genius he believed himself to be. He saw how the public needs everyone to fit into a pre-determined identity, which in his case was the self-destructive, death-obsessed misfit. With a heroin addiction. And that no matter what he said, or wrote, he would never be able to stop these lies from being told about him.
At least that’s my take on it. But then, as a film critic, the issue is only important insofar as it bears on the experience of seeing The End of the Tour. That said, while the aforementioned irony about Wallace was illuminating, the film blurs its focus whenever it spends time on the somewhat less fascinating figure of Lipsky. But we shouldn’t be surprised about that. It’s pretty obvious that Jesse Eisenberg was cast to give his now-patented performance of the cringe-inducing creep, and he delivers. It’s almost as if producers know that there’s a core audience that will pay admission to see him be a dickhead for two hours.
What it also reveals, inadvertently, is the cynical nature of the whole project. Jason Segel is both awesome and invisible as Wallace. Awesome because he convinces as a tortured, immensely gifted man who desperately clings to a personal code of honor; but also invisible because Wallace seems to want to encrypt that code, to make it impenetrable. His suicide – like his writing – seems intended to unsettle and confuse the hostile forces attacking him. Namely, everyone else.
In other words, Wallace remains an enigma. The filmmakers know they can’t “explain” him, and they don’t try. But what about that other guy, the “straight man” of the team? Well, while Lipsky eventually became successful as a writer, and has published a book about the tour, we only get to know him as a nosy reporter with grand ambitions. What we see is him getting to act out a failed writer’s fantasy: to interpret and judge the very life of the superior artist, who has voluntarily placed himself in that position. And to get paid for it too.