Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.21.15
Hyper-awareness and second-guessing are the absolute death of joie de vivre; when we scrutinize every thought and deed, the inevitable results are despair and utter paralysis.
This is one of several lessons to be learned from The End of the Tour, a heartfelt, thoughtfully engaging depiction of writers, the writing process and the price of fame. The film is anchored by the subtle, richly nuanced performances of its two stars: most particularly Jason Segel, demonstrating a level of acting intensity that will surprise viewers who know him solely for overly broad comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement and television’s How I Met Your Mother.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ screenplay is drawn from an actual event: the five-day “brief encounter” that Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent with wunderkind author David Foster Wallace (Segel) in 1996, while shadowing the conclusion of the latter’s book tour for his highly celebrated epic novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace did not wear celebrity well; Lipsky, too much in awe of a man whose talent and acclaim he coveted, likely was a poor choice for the assignment.
And yet, at the same time, he probably was the best choice. Such are the tantalizing ironies that dance throughout Margulies’ piquant script, which is based on Lipsky’s own best-selling memoir of this meeting, 2010’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Although director James Ponsoldt’s intimate drama focuses on the interactions between these two men, as Lipsky and his ubiquitous tape recorder intrusively chronicle even the most trivial aspects of Wallace’s behavior — such as when he discards the pickle from a fast-food hamburger — this isn’t strictly a talking-heads stage experience such as 1981’s My Dinner with Andre. Sidebar characters pop into this narrative, mostly to catalyze the intensity of subsequent conversations, but also to serve as physical examples of the philosophical issues with which Wallace constantly grapples.
That said, this is a dialogue-heavy film, replete with plain-vanilla two-shots. That shouldn’t be read as an indictment; debate is dull only if the participants — and their topics — are boring. That absolutely isn’t true here; as also was the case with My Dinner with Andre, watching this film is like eavesdropping on truly fascinating people.
Contrasting people, at that. Segel’s Wallace, although constantly laboring beneath a cloud of despair so tangible that we sometimes seem to see it, nonetheless tries, at all times, to articulate his feelings and impressions with a candor that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lipsky couldn’t manage if his life depended on it.
Segel is all over the place, spewing a helter-skelter of thoughts and emotions with the quiet, intense panic of a sculptor who dare not stop chiseling, lest he lose the perfect mental image he hopes to coax from the stone. Eisenberg’s Lipsky, in deliberate contrast, is repressed, uptight and even slightly dishonest (mostly with himself).
Wallace, bedraggled and unkempt, stringy hair left unwashed and restrained only slightly by an ever-present bandana, is the absolute epitome of a reclusive agoraphobe: an impression Lipsky can’t help noting, upon their initial meeting at his subject’s isolated, snowbound and wholly unremarkable Midwestern home. It’s absolutely the last place, in Lipsky’s mind, that a newly minted literary rock star such as Wallace should live.
And of course that’s precisely the point, as Wallace quickly insists: Lipsky’s personal reaction to these surroundings can’t help but shade his eventual story, thus depicting Wallace not as he sees himself, and would like to be seen by readers, but as Lipsky chooses to present him.
This dynamic will be recognized by any journalist who has been assigned to interview a reluctant subject: The relationship is adversarial at best, thawing — and, possibly, delivering the goods — only as the sparring combatants begin to trust each other. If, indeed, they ever do. Wallace obviously loathes the process of being interviewed, but has consented to it because, well, he’s supposed to. (We envision upper-echelon edicts from his publisher.)
Lipsky, in turn, has begged for the assignment, persuading his Rolling Stone editor (Ron Livingston, in a brief but dead-on performance) that the magazine really, truly needs to break years of tradition by profiling, yes, a writer. Lipsky’s motives are selfish; having just published his own first novel, The Art Fair, he wants to spend some time with a guy whose talent, he reluctantly acknowledges, far surpasses his own.
Probably not the best of reasons, because it makes Lipsky combative, challenging and too frequently tone-deaf. He wields the tape recorder like a machete, rather than a scalpel, constantly getting into Wallace’s face. The latter, frequently pained by such a clumsy approach — Segel’s expressive features so often wincing in disappointment — nonetheless tolerates such assaults, and tries to deliver what is required.
Or does he? At one point, stung by a perceptive assault on his own character, Lipsky angrily, petulantly accuses Wallace of too-carefully crafting the “gentle giant” persona he chooses to present: of running interference on his own behavior. Ponsoldt and Margulies shape their film with an ambiguity that leaves us wondering if such a tantalizing possibility is, indeed, true.
But even if that is the case, the shroud of misery that constantly envelops Wallace is no artifice. Segel radiates anguish, even as he voices the sad, lonesome Wallace’s lighter, cheerfully mocking takes on junk food and junk entertainment (being hopelessly addicted to both). The strength of Segel’s performance makes it increasingly difficult to watch, particularly for those who know of the actual Wallace’s long struggle against chronic depression, which climaxed when the author took his own life on Sept. 12, 2008, at age 46.
We ache for the man here, irresistibly drawn to the iconic tortured artist, in great part because the verbal jousting is so witty, so sharply perceptive. Lipsky, on the other hand, comes off as an ill-mannered boor. Margulies’ script is quite hard on Lipsky, at times depicting him with the insensitivity that we associate with on-the-scene TV commentators who shove microphones into the faces of disaster survivors and ask how they “feel.”
Eisenberg, to his credit, doesn’t shy from this portrayal; he unapologetically embraces Lipsky’s often petty behavior, his shifty eyes seeking retreat at his worst moments, glancing downward like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And yet — and yet — this isn’t a thoroughly odious portrayal, as was the case with Eisenberg’s depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, in 2010’s The Social Network.
Eisenberg fine-tunes this reading of Lipsky in such a way that we recognize his arrogance derives from insecurity, rather than deliberately cruelty. He’s an under-trained journalist after a great story, trying his best and — even as he does so — silently beating himself up inside, because he knows he’s going about it all wrong.
So no, we don’t entirely hate the guy. But we do wish he could mature into a better version of himself. Quickly.
Joan Cusack does a hilarious turn as Wallace’s overly chirpy Minnesota book tour rep, who — among other things — can’t believe that her literary visitors don’t want to pose with the statue of Mary Tyler Moore in downtown Minneapolis. Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner inject tension into the Lipsky/Wallace dynamic, as two of the latter’s grad school friends-turned-fans; Anna Chlumsky also spices the brew as Lipsky’s girlfriend, whom he fears prefers Wallace’s prose to his own.
The irony is that after all the angst revealed and recorded here, Lipsky’s interview never was published in Rolling Stone, or anywhere else (a detail this film should clarify). Instead, those stacks of cassette tapes eventually blossomed into Lipsky’s 2010 memoir, which created a stir among people who insisted that he’d been unfair to the David Foster Wallace they knew, just as many are saying the same about Ponsoldt’s film.
Such naysayers miss the point. Those who embrace Wallace did — and do — so precisely because of the intimacy of his prose; the mere act of reading him presumes a bond that doesn’t actually exist. Lipsky made no claims of biographical authority in his book; it’s his take on a revealing and rewarding encounter that clearly had a great deal to do with who he later became as a writer. This film, in turn, is Ponsoldt and Margulies’ take on Wallace, as further refined by Segel.
Inflexible accuracy isn’t the goal here; earnest sincerity is. The End of the Tour depicts Wallace — and, to a lesser degree, Lipsky — as complicated, fascinating and intriguingly flawed individuals who merit our attention. If the film encourages viewers to pursue their literary achievements, well, I’d call that a job well done.