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The End of the Tour (2015)

This is a Watershed

“Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!”

--Engywook, The NeverEnding Story

I saw The End of the Tour three months ago, at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and it’s still fresh enough to write about. More accurately, my ability to write about the film is as strong as it was in early May—which isn’t saying much, since James Ponsoldt’s film broke my soul open in ways that make a traditional critique impossible. But I’ll do my best.

The film did what biopic exists to do, yet accomplish so rarely: compel me to learn as much about its subject as possible. In their brief look at the late author David Foster Wallace, Ponsoldt, writer Donald Marguiles, and actors Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg create a portrait of lonely, creative seekers so definitive and eerily recognizable that I felt at once relieved to finally be understood and horrified that other people might feel as mixed up as I do. So here I am, a quarter-year later, with a (mostly unread) copy of Wallace’s mammoth bestseller, Infinite Jest, on my nightstand; a head full of YouTube interviews; and a burning, conflicted desire to experience The End of the Tour again.

Based on David Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film chronicles the last few days of Wallace’s Infinite Jest tour. Rolling Stone hired Lipsky (Eisenberg) to profile the famously smart and notoriously shy Wallace (Segel), specifically to uncover the truth about substance abuse and suicide-attempt rumors. As a character, Lipsky is a frustrated young writer who craves his road companion’s fame and talent (in that order), and can’t understand how the newly minted “voice of a generation” could be so uninterested in success. Wallace sees the attention, accommodations, and attractive, intellectual groupies as barriers to his quest for big-picture comfort in a world short on empathy and distracted by technology.

The great contradiction is that Wallace himself is a product of (and, to great extent, a slave to) the mid-nineties consumerist American landscape that he so desperately wants to rise above. He loves junk food and action movies, and had to remove the television from his house in order to remain a productive writer. He’s also a slob whose trademark bandanna (often criticized as an affectation) is a totem of protection against sweating profusely in public. He’s a decent, awkward guy who has found that the goals so many people strive for—financial security and social acceptance—are illusory sedatives. He’s a disappointment to Lipsky, who desperately wants to believe in a satisfying, material end game.

As much as this is “David Foster Wallace” movie, it’s very much Lipsky’s story, and a critique of the cultural drive that values volume and speed over introspection. We come away from the film with a better understanding of Wallace as a character,** but not sensing that he’s had a character arc. He died several years after this story takes place, but the man we meet at the beginning of the film has already achieved a kind of tragic enlightenment; he’s a destination that Lipsky could choose to divert to, instead of spinning his spiritual wheels in the uncritical rat race of career advancement.

Intentional or not, The End of the Tour represents an artistic awakening in several of its participants, a series of beautiful meta-revelations that make it essential entertainment. Segel, best known as a comedic actor and writer, imbues the Wallace character with a wounded, darkly comic profundity. He creates a blistering social critic trapped inside a troubled, gentle-giant’s frame. 

Eisenberg is a layered, human version of his Mark Zuckerberg persona from The Social Network—an arrogant, fast-talking know-it-all who hasn’t yet figured out how to make the world respect him. His fiery cynicism makes a pitiful foil for Wallace’s above-the-fray even keel, but he’s not merely a cartoonish jerk. Take, for instance, a scene in which Lipsky and Wallace almost come to blows over a perceived act of infidelity. Ponsoldt and cinematographer Jakob Ihre create a rush of violence so visceral that we’re left feeling punched in the mouth—even though no one in the scene actually lays a hand on the other. It’s a revealing moment of passion, wherein Wallace’s inner turmoil busts through his otherwise fragile demeanor, and Lipsky’s callous, careerist bravado meets a conflict it can’t snark its way out of.

Also worth mentioning is the film’s composer. Following the CCFF screening, Ponsoldt took the stage for a Q&A and stunned the crowd with the revelation that Danny Elfman had created the film’s deft, minimalist score. There are only twenty minutes of his music in the film, but they round out the soundtrack’s period-college-radio tunes with haunting substance. The audible gasps in the audience came from people, I suspect, like me, who associate modern-day Elfman with the forgettable bump-bump-bump themes of forgettable CGI blockbusters. Ponsoldt’s film reminds us of the artist many of us grew up loving, a man who may, on some level, wrestle with the same creative and philosophical conflicts that Wallace did.

I’d like to say Ponsoldt had a breakthrough, too, but if he did I didn’t recognize it. To me, he delivered the same surprising, high-caliber, soul-searching drama that made The Spectacular Now one of my favorite films of 2013. The End of the Tour is a lock for this year’s list, already, and I can’t wait to see what he cooks up next. We’re in an era that’s lousy with standard-issue biopics, and it’s refreshing beyond belief to spend time with approximations of real-life characters who are allowed to relax, bullshit with each other, and figure things out—without flashbacks and sausage-factory plot devices getting in the way of our recognizing their humanity. The End of the Tour is not a “plot” movie, but it’s not aimless, either, thanks to the director’s innate kinship with the material.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Lipsky and Wallace bonding in diners or in cars. I often imagine them next door to Nathan and Caleb’s lab in Ex Machina, where similar conversations about the meaning of existence and our struggle to exert control over nature are somehow still taking place. As a an artist and a film critic, it’s my job to absorb the very kinds of entertainment that created much consternation in David Foster Wallace—to become immersed in the lullabies of our collective consciousness without succumbing to their melodies. It’s a journey fraught with disappointment, sure, but also with great revelations that light the way in a bleak culture so afraid of emotional honesty it abbreviated “feelings” to “feels”. For those of us who demand greater meaning and understanding in the art we connect with , The End of the Tour is just the beginning.

*I've set it aside for A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a lighter book of Wallace's essays (in more ways than one). Halfway through his in-depth look at television's relationship with reality, American culture, and U.S. fiction, I already feel like Neo from The Matrix fighting a bad dream inside his nutrient pod.

**If not as a human being: like any movie based on real life figures, there is some matter of controversy surrounding the filmmakers’ approach.

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