Partial portrait of a doomed artist as a young man

The End of the Tour (M). Director: James Ponsoldt. Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack. 106 minutes

'Is it just me?' writer and critic Glenn Kenny wrote back in July. 'Dave hasn't even been dead ten years ... his death is still a very raw thing to those who survived him.' The Dave that Kenny is referring to is his late friend, David Foster Wallace, the American fiction writer, who is the focus of director James Ponsoldt's new film, The End of the Tour. The film recreates the five days Wallace spent with Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky in 1996, following the publication of his famed epic novel Infinite Jest.

It is clearly intended as a tribute and a sympathetic character study. But, according to Kenny, its 'reverence actually works in reverse; it's stifling'. His scathing assessment echoes the statement released in April last year by the Foster Wallace Trust (not some faceless legalistic monolith, but a small entity headed by visual artist Karen Green, who was married to Wallace from 2004 until his death in 2008), thoroughly disowning the planned biopic and claiming Wallace himself would not have approved.

Such criticism echoes in the gap that exists for all famous figures between their public and private lives. The claim from those who knew and loved Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, 12 years after Infinite Jest, is that this is an unfaithful, or at best partial, portrayal of him. The film looks back from the moment of his death to a version of Wallace at the peak of his fame. By doing so it inevitably seeks out signs of mental fragility. The unavoidable implication is that he is an artist doomed by his own brilliance.

This is both limited and reductionist. Yet the existence of this conversation — about the discrepancy between public and private lives, and whether or not the film is faithful — actually enriches the film, which purports to be true yet consists of layers of artifice, some of which it addresses explicitly. It is based on the interviews with Wallace conducted by Lipsky in 1996, but not published until 2010, two years after Wallace's death, as the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

Lipsky's book was adapted for the screen by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, whose screenplay is in turn brought to life by acclaimed The Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt. So The End of the Tour is Ponsoldt's vision of Margulies' distillation of Lipsky's account of his conversations with Wallace. (I could point out here that this review is my interpretation of Ponsoldt's vision of Margulies' distillation etc., but that might be taking the point too far.) If the film is true, whose truth is it?

The on-screen Wallace's repeated observation that Lipsky has the power to make him look like an 'asshole' or otherwise is, therefore, self-referential on the filmmakers' part. This is underlined, too, by the fact that it is not Wallace who utters these words, but an actor who has been chosen to speak them in his absence, on his behalf. Indeed, the actors portraying Wallace and Lipsky, Segel and Eisenberg, represent yet another layer of interpretation (artifice). Subjectivity thrums in every line of dialogue.

This seems entirely appropriate, as what we are left with is a portrait of two men gazing at and trying to understand each other, while at the same time choosing how much to reveal of themselves, and how to spin those revelations when they are made. While I defer to Kenny's personal acquaintance with Wallace the man when he says that Segel misses the mark of authenticity, his performance is certainly a fine example of a a comedic actor with melancholy depths inverting this gift to compelling effect.

Eisenberg's is the more interesting performance though. After all, this is Lipsky's story — that is, it is his subjective viewpoint that Margulies and Ponsoldt invite us to share. He is both enamoured to Wallace and envious of his creative prowess, which dwarfs his own minor and relatively mediocre forays into fiction. Eisenberg portrays Lipsky as brazen and affable with currents of insecurity, that underpin and at times undermine his interactions with the writer when they manifest as mean-spiritedness.

It's on this level that the film becomes truly compelling: as a consideration of the relationship between journalist and subject, which is a strange kind of beast, glorified in the sprawling feature profiles of Rolling Stone and its ilk. At its best the relationship is marked by intimacy generated through dialogue, but at its worst or most puerile it is mutually exploitative, with each party in it for self-interest — say, publicity for the interviewee, and a reputation-building 'good story' for the interviewer.

Scenes from this year's Amy Schumer press junket revealed how bad things can go when an interviewer thinks they are going to befriend their celebrity interviewee. Lipsky's conversations with Wallace are hardly the (ahem) trainwreck Bowley's with Schumer was, but there are plenty of tense moments and, as noted above, Lipsky's power to manipulate the material is openly acknowledged. Also, watch the way Lipsky wields his tape recorder even during moments of heightened bon ami. Artifice indeed.

Those aforementioned thorny questions of consent aside, it's ultimately hard to deny that The End of the Tour is a very good film, packed with compelling dialogue and ideas: Wallace's remark that to be shy is to be so self-involved that you are hard to be around, and his assertion that although he might be smart when he is alone in a room with his books, he struggles to keep up with the quick-witted Lipsky in conversation, ought to resonate deeply with any self-loathing shy person or introspective creative type.

It's deeply touching and thought-provoking stuff, delivered with sufficient skill and elegance to see the film feature prominently and deservedly in conversations during awards season. If it has the added effect of renewing interest in Wallace and his remarkable fiction, then that can only be a good thing.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: The End of the Tour, David Foster Wallace, Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer



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