The End of the Tour, which opens nationwide tomorrow, has a funny habit of keeping David Foster Wallace offscreen. He first appears in the film through a tape recorder, as David Lipsky listens to their five-day interview for Rolling Stone in 1996 in the wake of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. But even after the audience meets him—living in a rather depressing bungalow in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois with two very friendly dogs—the camera seems to skirt Jason Segel’s awkward, sweaty imitation, focusing on Jesse Eisenberg’s Lipsky or taking longer shots of the two as they embark on the last days of Wallace’s tour supporting Infinite Jest (1996). It’s a subtle nod to the way most people experience an author through his or her voice alone, but it also fits thematically with the larger questions Wallace faced as fame came calling. Segel portrays him as a man horrified that he now has a public persona, and by how that might define him for others, and for himself.
Of all the arts, writing in particular has a strange contradiction at its core. It’s inherently a public act—taking thoughts and making them available to others who may not even know the author—but the act of writing itself is deeply private, even when the writer has friends and colleagues with whom to discuss craft or motivation. Projects that begin with collaboration are rare. Most writers tinker away at something alone before pushing it out into the world, and that is precisely the moment where control over the narrative—control that was at one point absolute—is lost.
Lipsky finds the author at the point where he’s internalized that loss and is trying to figure out what it means to him. The End of the Tour doesn’t provide an answer, and by framing Lipsky and Wallace’s time together with the latter’s suicide, the film seems to suggest that Wallace never found one either. That uncertainty makes him a strange interview subject, and we watch as he tries hard to control how he’s coming across without showing how hard he’s trying (Segel, a master of awkward comedy in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, uses those skills well for the many uncomfortable pauses in the film).
Lipsky, a writer in his own right, though well aware he will never be of Wallace’s caliber, sees through this, though he’s not interested in a hit piece. He genuinely thinks Wallace is a genius and finds the man’s waffling more annoying than anything else. Eisenberg has made his career playing smart, neurotic men—and Lipsky is no different—but the actor balances Lipsky’s obvious envy of Wallace with a clear fondness for what he has accomplished in Infinite Jest.
This is not a standard biography by any means.
While The End of the Tour is fascinating to those interested in Wallace, or writers’ lives in general, there doesn’t quite seem to be a movie in all this. Like A Dangerous Method (2011) David Cronenberg’s depiction of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s relationship, The End of the Tour lets the viewer be a fly on the wall for discussions between two very smart, very thoughtful people, without every really finding a plot to provide a through line. This is not a standard biography by any means, and while a number of conversations provide insight into what Wallace hoped to communicate through Infinite Jest, viewers interested in getting a full sense of the man are probably better off reading Lipsky’s book, which the film is based on, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (2010).
Instead, The End of the Tour feels like a perfect fit for what Quentin Tarantino has dubbed a “hangout movie”: a film you watch solely in order to spend time with the characters. Lipsky and Wallace are brilliant men butting heads over how much fame should affect their decisions and what should constitute the life of a writer. But even when arguments become tense—which they do in a few places, though it’s never clear how much of that is the film trying to drum up some drama—Segel and Eisenberg masterfully depict the growing camaraderie between the two. That’s a good enough reason to head to the theater.