It’s difficult to review James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, or “That Movie Starring Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace,” without also reviewing other reviews of the film. Many of them follow a particular pattern: there will be some pondering over the difficulties of adapting a book about a four-day-long series of interviews conducted between one novice novelist (David Lipsky, played here by Jesse Eisenberg) and the most celebrated writer of his generation (Wallace). There will be a mention of how the Wallace estate, close friends, and various writers have shunned the film before release. There will be a sampling of the topics discussed by the two men in their car ride (Pop Tarts and bloated popcorn flicks rank popularly). There will be fanfare over Segel’s performance. There will be slightly quieter fanfare over Eisenberg’s. There will be a celebration of how the film is less a biopic and more about friendship and the demolition of mythmaking. There may also be a note of how it’s really for Wallace buffs and writers. Many of these components are true and thought provoking. The rest provide what precisely is wrong with this film, even if they are unaware.
The film opens with James Lipsky, working in his New York City apartment. It is 2008. He is surrounded by books. Most are obscured and indistinguishable on the shelf, save one: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It only requires a little extra looking; at over 1,000 pages, it’s pretty difficult to miss. It’s fitting that this is the most distinguishable of the bunch, since it not only was one of the most important books of the 1990s, but it illustrates the central role it has in Lipsky’s life. Were it not for that book, he (nor countless others) wouldn’t have fallen in love with Wallace. He receives a call with unbelievable news: Wallace has committed suicide. It’s devastating for Lipsky, not so much as a fan, but as a former collaborator. He unearths a fossil of a tape recorder and plays a recording circa 1996. It’s him and Wallace on the last four days of his book tour, and the bulk of the film is a recreation of these recordings (initially intended for a Rolling Stone article, later shelved for Lipsky’s field memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself). Were it to be bookended by a wraparound sequence of mourning and nostalgia in the wake of a depressive writer’s death, the film might actually be the anti-biopic it so wants to be. Instead, The End of the Tour begins the recurring trope of giving Wallace a tragic messianic quality. Would the film rather see Wallace as a person, or as a mystical Lester Bangs-in-Almost Famous-like quip machine? Would Wallace himself would have preferred his likeness in that way? Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies, who otherwise imbue in the film a refreshingly lax and structureless narrative, can’t seem to make up their mind.
So does Segel embody Wallace, or does he embody the almost caricaturesque depiction, as this Vulture article contests? He certainly embodies Wallace, the public persona — one of a nervous, towering, quietly charismatic demeanor. It’s a surprise for many, especially since the announcement of his portrayal raised eyebrows in outrage. How can the animated man-child of The Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall tap into the quivering depression that continues to define Wallace? As a a fellow recovering alcoholic, Segel can approach some of the same dependencies Wallace had towards drugs and drinking. Segel also reprises the awkward desperation of his Freaks and Geeks role, who similarly aspired for fulfilling companionship. A junk food junkie and television addict, Segel’s Wallace is one struggling between adolescence and adulthood, as evident in his love for Die Hard and Broken Arrow as it is in his jealousy when he sees former girlfriend Betsy (Mickey Sumner) get chummy with Lipsky. It may not be the Wallace everyone wants, but it’s the one we have created in the aftermath of cultishness and viral videos. Segel owns it.
Briefly I’d like to address Wallace’s jealousy towards Betsy, which extends to one point of the film that has gone mostly unaddressed: the women. The End of the Tour is about two men, yes, and they are both well etched. The women (and, to be fair, Ron Livingston’s reluctant Rolling Stone editor), less so. Lipsky’s girlfriend, for one, is scolded when she talks to Wallace in a slightly flirty fashion. Aside from smiling at him before his trip, that’s pretty much it. Betsy acts as a barrier, a manifestation of their envy. Joan Cusack, though delightful, is broadly portrayed as a hospitable chauffeur. That’s no terrible identity to embody, but her role barely extends beyond that. A recurring image in the film is an Alanis Morrissette poster, which perpetuates a very teenage fantasy within Wallace’s forever busy psyche. The End of the Tour may not be a consciously sexist film, but it has a complicated, distant relationship with women at the cost of properly constructing a complicated relationship between two very smart men. Too bad, considering some of Wallace’s best work features compelling female characters at the lead.
The reviews are correct in assessing the film as more about friendship. It is, in fact, a romance. It is not only romantic towards its brilliant writer at the core, but also between the two writers. Lipsky romanticizes the cult of genius surrounding Wallace, and they both present the various points of any meaningful relationship: nervousness, joy, camaraderie, resentment, vulnerability, reconciliation, and envy. Envy truly is the ugly third (or fourth, if you consider the audience) wheel in this rental car journey. It’s a loose, at times fun, other times uncomfortable, hangout movie. It may be a little too niche, which is detrimental to the film’s overall effect. Without some prior knowledge of Wallace’s vast work, some will be bored or unsympathetic to the problem’s of these two men. I recall when A.O. Scott wrote about Sideways going over famously with critics, because they saw within Paul Giamatti a version of themselves. The problem with The End of the Tour is that it may be too directed towards writers, and considering the broad, “regular-guy-ness” of his persona and works, I can’t help but think he would’ve wanted something differently. Maybe something like Die Hard.