Terry: I love you, man.
Russel: And I love you. Because I’ve learned that Platonic love *can* exist between two grown men.
Benjamin: And I’ve learned something, too. I’ve learned that a flawless profile, a perfect body, the right clothes, and a great car can get you far in America – almost to the top – but it can’t get you everything.
Wayne Campbell: Isn’t it great that we’re all better people?
Wayne’s World (1992)
The End of the Tour is a sharp and sentimental take on the legacy of late American author David Foster Wallace, which examines the peculiar impact of that legacy upon audiences past and present. Beginning with the tragic death of the author in 2008, the film plays off of the mixed emotions surrounding Wallace and his complex body of work, leaping between mythic eulogy and indie-film dramatics in its recounting of an extended interview between Wallace and journalist David Lipsky in 1996. The result is a kind of straight-faced love story between the author and his reader, which is elevated by the brilliant performances of leads Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.
The real Lipsky’s five-day interview with Wallace, published in 2010 as the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, is a candid and sometimes frustrating text. All in all, the book presents a humanizing portrait of a larger-than-life figure, a man whom Lipsky describes as being “charmingly, vividly, overwhelmingly awake”. But on paper, it’s easy to imagine Lipsky as a bit of a prick, willfully misunderstanding the words coming out of Wallace’s mouth; the interview is rife with observations like “[Gentlemanly: He believes he’s flattering me by treating me as a matching peer]”. But this antagonism is surprisingly well-suited to the subject – Lipsky’s book contains some of Wallace’s most vivid and compelling statements about fiction (including his own works), contemporary culture and, of course, postmodernity.
In adapting this story for the screen, screenwriter Donald Margulies has excised a surprising amount of interview material; weirdly, the word “postmodern” is almost totally absent from the film. Instead, the film teases out the dramatic touch-points of Lipsky’s book – the movement between cities, the throng of Wallace’s nascent stardom, the conflict between its two principal ‘characters’ – to present a strange kind of love story, an intimate and occasionally threatening encounter between two troubled young men. As focalizer, Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a jealous and overtly cynical man, desperate to understand “the most talked about writer of a generation”, if only to countenance his own insecurities as an author. In response, Segel plays Wallace as a kind of paradox, both sincere and standoffish, both “regular guy” and literary force of nature.
The End of the Tour plays out like an actual romance, as the principals move from awkward first encounter, to unlikely friendship, all the way through to falling out and cathartic reconciliation. While this approach is likely intentional – Wallace appreciation is rife with stories of love, empathetic connection and “really human” connection – The End of the Tour occasionally over-plays its hand, conflating schmaltz with sentiment, or veering beyond intimacy towards straight-up predation. A particularly moving sermon on suicidal depression, delivered towards the end of the film, is undercut by its excessively intimate staging: Segel’s Wallace at the foot of the bed, half-shrouded in darkness, demanding yet another final word on himself and his legacy. Meanwhile, the characters Wallace and Lipsky loudly insist their love for “pretty girls” at book readings, and the film gets extensive mileage out of Wallace’s desire to get laid off of his fame, whilst he and Lipsky joust over a series of (largely sidelined) women characters.
Whilst this take may not succeed as a complete statement on the man and his works – and yes, the film has a few cracks at this towards the end – the simmering tension wrought between Segel and Eisenberg is well worth the price of admission. As a rumination on literary love, and the pitfalls of meeting your idols, The End of the Tour invites us to reconsider an author who, above all else, saw writing as “an act of communication between one human being and another”, an exchange writ large throughout the film.
The End of the Tour is exclusive to Cinema Nova and screens from December 3rd. Tickets available online or at the box office.