Aug 3, 2015

The End Of The Tour

I once tried to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and I gave up around page five, if not sooner. My footnote-reading days were officially over the moment I stepped out of college, and I just didn't have the sensibility or the mental stamina to pursue the effort. I have never read anything by Wallace, except perhaps an essay in some magazine. My interest in this film has nothing to do with literary fandom. I am a big fan of Jason Segel (so sue me) and of Jesse Eisenberg, the patron saint of movie slimeballs. To their and this movie's credit, I am now looking forward to give Foster Wallace's writing another stab.
Most biopics of creative people are as exhilarating as watching paint dry. The End Of The Tour is not really a biopic, however. It is a fascinating drama about the dynamic between two opposite personalities, both writers, both named David, both living in the thrall of success for opposite reasons. David Lipsky craves it desperately, David Foster Wallace has it in spades and hates it (or does he?).
Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) was an unsuccessful novelist and a writer for Rolling Stone when he pitched a story about Wallace (Jason Segel), a literary maverick who seemed to blaze out of nowhere with the word genius written all over him: the great white hope of American letters. The excellent script by playwright Donald Margulies is based on the memoir Lipsky wrote about the interview he conducted with Wallace.
The End Of The Tour is a tense, awkward, uncomfortable road trip in which Lipsky accompanies Wallace on the last five days of his book tour, with stops in Jealousy, Fame, Talent, Genius, Depression, Male Bonding and One-upmanship.
The movie starts with a sad little scene in which Lipsky reads from his novel at a barely attended reading. Not even his friends bother to show up. In short: the life of any obscure New York City writer. Cut to a crowd snaking up the stairs at the KGB Bar to listen to wunderkind David Foster Wallace. Symbolically, both Davids could be two sides of the cycle of hope and despair that any writer goes through, but they are also two very smart guys engaged in a very subtle game of cat and mouse. Lipsky is the cat who wants to write a juicy article about Wallace and his rumored demons (drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide watches -- a good read), and Wallace is the mighty mouse who is painfully attuned to, and aims to shape, every layer of meaning in his waking life.
Lipsky travels to a remote town in the upper Midwest, in the dead of winter, where Wallace, the literary phenomenon of the century, lives in isolation with his two dogs and teaches creative writing in an unsung college. Lipsky is a wiry, hungry little fellow. Jesse Eisenberg excels at playing characters whose wheels of ambition you can see turn feverishly in their heads. You can feel his corroding envy of Wallace in your gut. He can't fathom what objections Wallace can possibly have to acclaim, success, and fame. Every time Wallace doth protest too much about being a famous genius, Lipsky cocks his head: he doesn't get it and he doesn't buy it either.
As written, Lipsky is a thankless role. He is petty, competitive, resentful, and increasingly feral in his pursuit of the story, but Eisenberg finds poignancy in his painful hunger for success and his need to understand and connect with his subject. Lipsky is aware that he is no David Foster Wallace. This kills him. And it kills us to watch it. He thinks he is the underdog, but in this tragic instance the hero is Wallace. He may be the top dog with all the powers, but he is engaged in an epic battle with his own unbearable sensibility.
Segel's Wallace is a big bear of a guy with an addiction to junk food, candy, soda, and American entertainment, which he seems to guzzle in order to stave off more lethal addictions. He also has a finely calibrated grip on his own narrative. Segel, who is excellent, makes him into a very sympathetic figure. He is generous, casual, soft-spoken, self-effacing and quietly turbulent. He makes good use of his comedy chops and his impeccable sense of timing. For a tortured soul, he seems pretty easygoing. But there is always an undercurrent in him of pained suspicion, of eternal disappointment at others' incomprehension, of the burden of people's expectations. When Lipsky asks pointed personal questions, displeasure drifts through his face like clouds darkening the sky. Yet he always gives Lipsky good copy, well aware that he is both feeding the machine that he loathes while crafting his own myth. Lipsky soon catches up to his underhanded shagginess. Wallace invites Lipsky to stay in his guest room, instead of a dreary motel. This magnanimous offer turns out to be, not only a way to show Lipsky who's boss, as the room is stacked high with copies of Wallace's books, which can only make Lipsky's stomach churn further, but is also designed to keep him close by.
It's a well-matched battle of wits. I hear Lipsky when he finally calls bullshit on Wallace's "I'm just a regular dude" routine, exasperated by the man who insists on denying himself what every American thinks is his God-given right to spectacular achievement.
Director James Ponsoldt and his two actors sustain an atmosphere of unbearable tension and awkwardness, at times darkly funny and very moving. The script is a good illustration of the symbiotic, sometimes unhealthy relationship between the famous and the media (I hate you, but I need you, which is a two-way street). It is also a master class in dramatic writing, with the opposing Davids engaged in a crafty clash of ambitions.
Furthermore, any movie that employs Joan Cusack (as Wallace's overly chirpy literary tour escort) deserves my undying respect.
Because The End Of The Tour uses Lipsky's interview as a springboard to investigate broader themes, it becomes rather irrelevant whether the fictional Davids are faithful to the originals. Beyond the biographical facts, this film achieves a rare, rich and accurate depiction of what it is like to be a writer, both in success and in failure. Also, I surmise, of what it's like to be male.
If I have one objection, it's to a happy ending-ish coda tucked among the end credits in which Wallace is shown letting loose at a dance. I think the movie should have ended where it ends, as Lipsky reads from his memoir of Wallace at a robustly attended venue, having achieved some success by writing, by all accounts well, about the giant he could not be. I chose to leave the theater with the satisfyingly acrid taste of that ending in my mouth. The End Of The Tour is a fun, intelligent and rewarding film.

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