Few artists reach the literary legend status David Foster Wallace did — and fewer still do it with, essentially, one work. Many who do die tragically young. Perhaps there are certain eras more likely to breed this kind of tortured artist — Wallace was five years older than Kurt Cobain, and didn’t commit suicide until 2008. He was in his forties when he died.
Yet, captured in the earliest moments of his celebrity in James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour, Wallace might as well be the other poster boy for Gen X angst — the literary Nirvana. The film depicts him on the last stop of his book tour with Infinite Jest, the 1,000-page tome that became an instant, unlikely runaway success — hailed as a masterwork upon release, prompting comparisons of Wallace to once-a-generation luminaries like Hemingway.
Stories about such figures tend to be larger than life, featuring screaming fans and flashing lights and usually at least one lonely shot of said celebrity staring mournfully in the mirror. An anguished artist battling an addiction of some kind — pills or booze or sex or fame itself, or maybe all of these — succumbing to the monstrous pressures of success.
But it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read his work: Wallace refused to adhere to such a conventional narrative, and the first movie to be made about him follows suit. In The End Of The Tour, it’s not being a preternaturally gifted artist that comes at a price — it’s being human.
The protagonist of The End Of The Tour is an ambitious novelist named David who is not David Foster Wallace. That would be David Lipsky, whose debut novel The Art Fair didn’t make nearly the splash that Infinite Jest did. Lipsky also has a gig writing for Rolling Stone, suggesting to his boss (Ron Livingston) that the magazine conduct its first author interview in a decade with the hot new commodity on the literary scene. This makes a lot of sense for the magazine, given the cult of personality that rose up around Wallace, building him up as one of the tortured gods of the 1990s — a young, prophetic rock star in the literary world.
Lipsky prepares to meet this rock star, as eager as anyone to buy into the myth of the untouchable genius. But the man he finds refuses to be the man Lipsky is expecting. Lipsky keeps trying to unlock an easy, central mystery, the Key to Being David Foster Wallace — the kind of thing that makes for an easily digestible celebrity profile. (Ironic, since Wallace’s work takes so much mental mastication to get through.) What Lipsky’s discovers is that there is no tidy narrative, no singular addiction, no buried breakdown, and no pithy quote that can account for the painful prudence of Wallace’s writing. David Foster Wallace is not an addict; he’s a person. He’s depressed, and there is no glamour in it, no meaning or rhyme or reason. It is what it is, and it isn’t pretty.
Jesse Eisenberg played a troubled wunderkind to Oscar-nominated effect in The Social Network. Here, he portrays David Lipsky on the other side of that fence — a man who would love to be a tortured genius, but is neither quite tortured nor quite genius enough to achieve what Wallace did. (In the years since this 1996 interview, Lipsky has gone on to become a notable writer in his own right, but it’s ironic to note that his most meaningful work may be the one that’s all about Wallace’s brilliance.) Eisenberg, as usual, doesn’t care to be terribly well-liked by the audience, allowing Lipsky to come off as self-serving and vaguely monstrous through most of the film (though he’s ultimately not a bad guy). Lipsky’s a hypocrite — unhesitant to poke through Wallace’s medicine cabinet and hit up his ex-girlfriend for the dirty deets, but flinching when Wallace wants to know anything about him, and flying off the rails when Wallace has a conversation with Lipsky’s girlfriend.
By contrast, The End Of The Tour has nothing but reverence for David Foster Wallace, though it’s a more grounded reverence than we’re used to from most biopics. Eisenberg and Lipsky both step aside to make room for Wallace’s greatness, which goes rather undisputed by Ponsoldt even if the subject himself is rather humble about his talents. At one point, Lipsky suggests that Wallace dumbs himself down in everyday conversation so as not to alienate the “common people”; Wallace denies this, believing (or at least professing to believe) that all inner lives are equally rich. Regardless, Jason Segel’s performance is so full of vulnerability and depth, it’s impossible to take Lipsky’s side in this or any other matter that poses their ideals against each other. Generously, Eisenberg doesn’t fight to give his character equal standing — The End Of The Tour is Wallace and Segel’s show, hands down. (And this gives us every reason to believe Segel will be a part of the Oscar conversation come winter.)
As portrayed by Jason Segel, Wallace is both tremendously sad and almost heroically good-natured. Having suffered serious bouts of depression, he now makes a concerted effort to show kindness to the people around him and set himself on the same playing field as everyone else, despite a cult of celebrity that could and has devoured similarly talented men. Wallace could have moved to New York City or Los Angeles and been the toast of the town. He could have received nothing but fawning praise from friends and strangers. Instead, he’s a bit of a recluse, spending most of his time with his two dogs in chilly Illinois suburbs. He dresses for a radio interview the way most of us wouldn’t even dress to run to the corner store for milk. Fame is what he fears — or, rather, the inauthentic bullshit that comes along with it. Wallace lived for 13 years after the (never published) Rolling Stone interview, but his death hangs like a heavy cloud over the proceedings. Everything Wallace says in 1996 we know, in some part, fueled his hanging himself in 2008.
Most of the film unfolds in conversation, with Lipsky trying to provoke certain responses from Wallace, who rarely takes the bait — instead, firing back with some insightful nugget of quiet wisdom that outdoes whatever pull-quotable sound bite Lipsky was hoping to get out of him. It is reminiscent of a slightly bigger two-hander between a pretentious wannabe and a complicatedly private public figure, one that also boiled down to a tete-a-tete made available to millions — that would be Ron Howard’s Frost vs. Nixon. That was a great film, thanks largely to Frank Langella’s dynamic portrayal of Richard Nixon, and The End Of The Tour similarly owes a lot to the affable, unaffected way Segel plays Wallace, aided by Donald Margulies’ deft script. There’s never exactly an antagonistic relationship between these two men the way there was between Frost and Nixon — the script doesn’t build to anything quite so climactic. The friction between these men is more about the sadness they feel about themselves, yearnings and longing brought to light through this interview.
The leads are the movie — The End Of The Tour features only brief appearances from very few supporting characters. Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner play college friends of Wallace; Anna Chlumsky appears as Lipsky’s Wallace-adoring girlfriend; Joan Cusack is the chipper Twin Cities driver who knows nothing about Wallace, though she is quickly won over by his radio appearance. In a movie dominated almost entirely by two charismatic males, it’s worth nothing that every other character, besides Lipsky’s little-seen boss, is female — even the young intern played by Maria Wasikowska (Mia’s sister). I’m not sure this means much, but at least the women here are more than just objects of longing and lust for the men at its center. Though their appearances are brief, all of these women are fully realized characters, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies that are largely concerned with the male ego.
Though much trimmer than Infinite Jest, The End Of The Tour provides an awful lot of thematic weight to chew on, which is probably inevitable for any good film about David Foster Wallace. It’s drenched in 1990s nostalgia — Alanis Morissette and the John Woo’s Broken Arrow are featured prominently — in that strange cultural moment that fell between grunge and bubblegum. Wallace gorges on candy and junk food. He loves popcorn movies and brainless television. He’s addicted to these empty pleasures — activities, like masturbation, that provide a temporary, numbing solace from his despairing mind. (Which is the reason he’s given up drinking.)The film isn’t cheap enough to reduce either Lipsky or Wallace to “one or the other” cliches, but there is a battle between art and commerce central to the narrative. Wallace rues the irony that the more fame he acquires, the more he’ll end up feeling like a fraud; Lipsky takes note of Wallace’s lonesome life and still can’t help but covet his success. And then, of course, there’s the fact that this conversation is only happening so it can be published and devoured by the readers of Rolling Stone — which has a fine reputation for journalism, sure, but also exists mainly to feature rock stars looking all sexy and badass on its glossy cover.
Wallace is the complicated novelist who lives for McDonald’s and John Travolta movies, while Lipsky is the rock-and-roll magazine writer who tries to prove how “serious” he is by reading, well, David Foster Wallace. In The End Of The Tour, the literary world, like everything else in America, is depicted as the serpent eating its own tail. An artist like Wallace can only be celebrated through the magic of mass consumption, but the more popular his work gets, the less value it has in the eyes of consumers — and Wallace himself. Lipsky visits Wallace’s home searching for juicy details that will sell Wallace as a certain kind of author — maybe a reason for readers to feel smugly superior to him, or maybe a reason to elevate their blind worship to even greater heights.
What he finds instead is just a lonely human being who feels sad a lot of the time. Yes, Wallace has channeled that sadness into a book that a lot of people like, but ultimately, that celebration doesn’t change his situation any, and in fact might just isolate him further. It certainly doesn’t cure his depression, either, and for a wannabe luminary like Lipsky, the revelation that fame isn’t a panacea for all life’s ills is very bad news indeed. We like our artists tortured, maybe because we want to believe that there’s a price to pay for stardom, or maybe because we hope there’s some dirty, terrible secret that separates them from us. Or else, why do they have it, and we don’t?Every generation has its superstars, tormented and otherwise, but there’s something particularly downbeat about Generation X’s icons. Kurt Cobain isn’t mentioned in the film, but it’s hard not think, too, about his suicide while watching it. Like Cobain, Wallace produced one work that rocketed him to star status and suddenly posed his talents as a commercialized product — essentially, everything he thought his work was railing against. Ponsoldt does a spectacular and rather depressing job of miring this movie in its era — the mid-1990s comedown from the excessive highs of the 80s feels very ingrained in who Wallace was, both as man and as artist. His melancholy feels less particular to his character, and more emblematic of Gen X itself. (Which might be what made Infinite Jest so resonant.)
Culturally, it is probably only about now, in 2015, that we are ready to delve into what the 1990s meant, the way we’ve already exhaustively deconstructed the 1970s and 1980s. I’m not sure Margulies or Ponsoldt consciously meant to take on such a lofty topic, but it’s a fitting task for the movie that explores the mind behind one of the essential pop cultural products of the decade. (Can it be a coincidence that Wallace’s work has “infinite” in the title, while Ponsoldt answers it with “the end” of the tour? I doubt it.) In 1996, America was hungry for an icon — to replace Cobain, perhaps — and Wallace happened to come along at the right time with the right book. But ultimately, even award-winning literary titans are have to be packaged a certain way to make an impact. It may not look it on the outside, but The End Of The Tour is one of the most insightful works about modern celebrity in ages.
It’s nice to think that the silver lining of sadness might be great art — which is why we have The Bell Jar and Nevermind, Starry Night and Aladdin‘s wisecracking Genie. The list goes on and on — writers and musicians and actors and artists are our modern-day Christs, dying for our sins. They create greatness and, in the process, destroy themselves, and we consume it, enjoying their soul-searching insight without having to look so deep within ourselves. At least, that’s the romantic version. But there’s no indication in The End Of The Tour that David Foster Wallace would be any happier a person if he never wrote a single word. He is neither bolstered nor undone by fame. His stories and his depression seem to be entirely separate entities. But then, we can’t ever be truly sure, can we?
For all that he opens up to Lipsky (and us), The End Of The Tour‘s David Foster Wallace remains elusive. We believe he’s being honest, but still, he never comes fully into view. We don’t get the little detail that clicks everything into place and allows us to nod our heads and say, Aha! Yes, I understand him perfectly now. And that’s the point. It’s easy to define a person, particularly a celebrity, by their untimely death, especially when it’s their own doing. But there was a whole life that came before that. David Foster Wallace may have committed suicide at one moment in 2008, but there were many moments up until then when he didn’t. Moments when he wanted to, thought about it, decided against. These are the moments The End Of The Tour decides to define Wallace by — not so much by what we see on screen, but by everything we don’t that’s implied.
We are not 2,000 words in a magazine. We are not a 106-minute movie. We are not even a 1,000+ novel hailed by everyone everywhere as a masterpiece. The End Of The Tour is about many things, but ironically, it is most about how no biopic, no biography, and certainly no celebrity profile interview in Rolling Stone can ever tell us who a person is, famous or otherwise. No matter how big a book we write, we are so much infinitely bigger.