MIFF 2015: The End of the Tour

The first cinematic portrait of literary icon David Foster Wallace goes to great lengths to avoid being overly ambitious. The End of the Tour adapts David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a 2010 book salvaged from an aborted Rolling Stone profile covering the 1996 press tour for the release of Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Abandoning any of the possibilities this level of adaptation-within-adaptation allows, The End of the Tour sticks to doing exactly what it says on the box; nothing more, nothing less.

In 1996, Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a writer struggling with legitimacy after the release of his first novel, travels to rural Illinois on assignment for Rolling Stone to accompany literary sensation Wallace (Jason Segel) on the last stop of his press tour for Infinite Jest. In 2008, Wallace commits suicide. The End of the Tour takes both a micro and macro approach to Wallace’s life, presenting Lipsky’s memories of his five days with Wallace while bookending the film with scenes of Lipsky's response to Wallace’s death.

Lipsky’s stated desire in releasing his tribute to Wallace in the aftermath of his 2008 suicide was an attempt to present the world with an honest portrait of the man behind the literary persona. In focusing solely on these five days and utilising dialogue taken verbatim from the subsequent audio recordings, Lipsky’s book and director James Ponsoldt’s film serve the same purpose, although the film has the advantage of taking liberties with its treatment of Lipsky, and by extension every writer living in Wallace’s shadow.

What’s most interesting about The End of the Tour is that it acts as a time capsule of Generation X chauvinism. Masculine competitiveness drives the film; Lipsky is emasculated by Wallace’s success before they’ve even met (his girlfriend likes Wallace’s writing more than his). In her piece for New York Magazine, “Why Literary Chauvinists Love David Foster Wallace”, Molly Fischer outlines the history of this literary machismo, descending from the Great Male Narcissists (Updike, Mailer, Roth) of the mid-twentieth century which Wallace himself criticised, and currently thriving in the Male Feminists Who Love Eating Pussy of today, each of whom possesses an unread copy of Infinite Jest. Ponsoldt never sees the need to address this, or much of anything in fact. The most the film seems interested in exploring is the Good Writer/Bad Writer dichotomy, but this too is so wrapped up in literary chauvinism that it’s hard to take too much from it.

The End of the Tour’s appeal is twofold. As well as serving as posthumous biopic, the film doubles as the inevitable dramatic turn for Jason Segel. Segel has always shown a certain reluctance to being pigeonholed as a comedic actor; his relationship with his lucrative but creatively lacking role on How I Met Your Mother was always fascinating, as he openly mocked it in everything from interviews to his appearance in This Is The End. It’s disappointing then that Segel’s performance as David Foster Wallace is ultimately unsatisfying as the film gives him so little to do. The “character” of David Foster Wallace that lives in David Lipsky’s memory amounts to little more than a series of quotes brought to life. Segel does his best with the handful of monologues he is given to play with — including an obligatory ominous foreshadowing of Wallace’s eventual suicide — but little more. Ultimately, The End of the Tour succeeds at presenting an honest, if uninteresting portrait of an interesting, troubled man.

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