Review: The End of the Tour

EOTArriving at The End of the Tour feels like being the final person in a game of ‘pass the message’. Director, James Ponsoldt, and screenwriter, Donald Margulies, are retelling a story captured by journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in his book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which was taken from recorded conversations between Lipsky and Wallace (played by Jason Segel) on the final leg of the book tour for Infinite Jest in 1996 for a feature in Rolling Stone.  When the late Wallace’s cultural weight is considered – he took his own life in 2008 – it’s hard not to be sceptical, but nothing feels completely warped in translation with The End of the Tour.

There’s a Stand By Me aesthetic from the outset as an older Lipsky discovers the fate of Wallace in a similar way the adult Gordie Lachance learns of the death of his childhood friend, Chris Chambers, from a newspaper in Rob Reiner’s film.  Ponsoldt transitions to flashbacks with the emphasised knowledge of Wallace’s death placing the narrative into a melancholic state bordering on eulogising.  Whenever suicide lurks the biggest question is: why?  The unbearable sadness is that we’ll never know, and The End of the Tour makes a point of the hopelessness of looking for answers, sometimes reflection is the best way to grieve or acknowledge someone’s existence.

Ponsoldt ditches the grandiose approach often used to reflect the lives of public figures from birth to death, to instead, wrestle with what made Wallace and Lipsky bond and bicker over five-days.  Wallace was an author at the height of his fame due to Infinite Jest – his second novel – and Lipsky had his first novel published to no acclaim while toiling away working for magazines; it’s the tale of two writers.  The art of conversation is the focus within the bounds of an agreed upon interview.  Whenever things get prickly, Lipsky reminds Wallace that he agreed to the interview which makes for an uneasy alliance. Ponsoldt draws attention to the beady red light of the tape recorder and Lipsky’s ability to hit record like a gunslinger.  At first, it seems like the interview is the only reason why Wallace will open up, despite a hefty amount of self-awareness over how he’s coming across, but the click of the recorder becomes agitating; sometimes it feels like a joy-kill as the relationship outgrows an agreement.  There is truth to Lester Bangs’ advice in Almost Famous, ‘you cannot make friends with the rock stars’, but The End of the Tour echoes Bangs’ other line more, ‘the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.’ When the façade around Wallace is stripped away, including his own barbs at the celebrity status he has gained from Infinite Jest, there are two people sharing sublime moments of uncool.

The conversations run through a wide range of topics to the allure of Alanis Morrisette – Wallace has a single poster of her in his living room – to dealing with fame, the magnetism of trashy television and the indulgence of junk food. Each topic has a resonance no matter how facetious it seems.  The affinity The End of the Tour has for junk food alone, as a simple pleasure to distract the mind, sums up Wallace’s adoration for Americana which seems at odds with the ‘genius author’ tag he’s given by the press at the time.  Ponsoldt surrounds Lipsky and Wallace with totems of American culture: they drive down highways flanked with neon signs for fast-food outlets, Wallace chooses to visit the Mall of America on a book tour day-off and indulges in the Hollywood blockbuster Broken Arrow.  Wallace is an advocate for the culture that is in regression against reading a 1000 page book like Infinite Jest but he’s forever the diplomat in his defending why there is room for his book, cheeseburgers and movies where John Travolta takes a nuclear missile in the chest.

The End of the Tour goes a little deeper than looking for the meaning of life in a hamburger and it gets to the core of Wallace and Lipsky’s vulnerabilities.  Lipsky is naïve, and thinks Wallace should be gratified by achieving famous author status.  Lipsky has him so high on a pedestal that he says, ‘You don’t crack open a 1000 page book because you heard the author was a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant.’  Later, Wallace tells Lipsky, ‘I’m not so sure you want to be me — just be a good guy.’  Moral lessons and affirmations dart between the two writers but there’s great sadness in Wallace’s inability to find a moment of peace away from self-loathing.   Wallace is constantly warning Lipsky that he’s delusional about what matters most in life because it all means nothing if you can’t live with yourself.  The End of the Tour meditates on depression in everyday life and it aches hard.

Eisenberg plays the impressionistic Lipsky well with the self-assured hubris of a young writer keen to impress his hero.  Not many actors can do smug intelligence like Eisenberg and get away with it.  It’s a little muted in his interpretation of Lipsky, but it works to allow the actor to show a guy humbled by the gleaned truths of his interview subject.  Segel’s Wallace is a little softened by the way the actor’s comedic sensibilities lean into the writer’s eccentricities.  The brilliance of Segel’s performance is in the way he owns Wallace’s language to make his casual brand of genius authentic.  Segel’s mannerisms do border on caricature a little with Wallace’s constant sighing, unblinking stare and an endless number of uneasy smirks.  One thing is for certain though; when Eisenberg and Segel are together they bounce off each other like brothers; and there’s a longing for each discussion to last five minutes more.

At around three-quarters into The End of the Tour, Ponsoldt shows Wallace watching the daggy telemovie, The Late Shift, which tells the story of Jay Leno and David Letterman’s battle to host The Tonight Show – it’s also based on a book written by a journalist.  In this moment we are being reminded that we too are watching the interpretation of a true story, based on a reflective book, and it’s a prompt to not focus on the facts of what did or didn’t happen during the press tour.  It’s a cue to reflect on the words of Wallace and Lipsky, and the elements of life being examined under the impression that, In Wallace’s case, something incredible is happening (or not).  Being locked into each conversation is The End of the Tour’s beautiful endorsement for living in the moment, making a connection with someone, reaching out from the void of loneliness in a world pushing us closer into emotional solitude.


Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie