wrote, "While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences." I feel similarly about The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt's compassionate, provocative, and occasionally dull recreation of the five-day period shortly following the release of Infinite Jest, in which Rolling Stone's David Lipsky trailed Wallace on his promotional rounds. It is not an especially kinetic movie, and if it is in no hurry to go anywhere, its luxuriant patience occasionally creeps into stasis. But it is also a sharply scripted and profoundly affecting character study, tenderly depicting two writers who are deeply committed both to their specific jobs and to the grander notion of composing meaningful words. Wallace and Lipsky both believed that their prose, as painful as it was to conceive, might actually mean something. The End of the Tour nobly honors their commitment, even if certain stretches of its narrative feel meaningless.
The movie opens in 2008, with a dumbfounded Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg,
even better than usual) learning of Wallace's suicide, a tragic event
whose dark shadow looms over The End of the Tour. It then flashes
back 12 years, revealing Lipsky as a hungry and energetic young writer
who keeps hearing about this rapturously received tome called Infinite Jest. Animated by both jealousy and disbelief, he scoffs at the reviews claiming that this mammoth novel heralds the arrival of the next Pynchon. Then he reads it. Not long after, he's pleading with his editor at Rolling Stone
to interview Wallace for a celebrity profile, and then he's jetting off
to snowy Illinois, hoping to reconcile this generation-defining book
with the mere mortal who wrote it.
The first meeting between Lipsky and Wallace (Jason Segel, giving what
is certain to be labeled a career-transforming performance) sets the
tone for The End of the Tour. Wallace greets Lipsky with a
careless handshake, more worried about his two hyperactive Labradors
than his new guest. Lipsky wastes no time switching on his tape
recorder, and while the two men are nervously sizing one another up, one
of them makes an offhand comment about television and masturbation. And
then they're off, arguing in earnest about the social utility of the
two pursuits and whether it's more meaningful to actually fantasize
about another person or to watch fantasies play out on TV.
What is the point of this conversation? Who says there needs to be a point? It would be inaccurate to describe The End of the Tour
as plotless; it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. But it is less
concerned with pushing its characters forward than with circling around
them, meticulously charting the ebb and flow in the tentative
relationship that develops between its proud, insecure protagonists.
Ponsoldt, whose The Spectacular Now
remains one of the unappreciated jewels of the past several years,
adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach, sacrificing energy for intimacy. It's
a tradeoff with real costs. Despite a catchy soundtrack (the quiet
melodies of R.E.M. pop up regularly), The End of the Tour isn't
particularly cinematic, and it occasionally seems as though Ponsoldt was
so wary of interfering with his actors' exchanges that he forgot he was
holding a camera. Yet at the same time, his unfussy technique affords
viewers a rare kind of closeness. When Wallace and Lipsky talk—and they
spend virtually the whole film talking—you feel less like you're
watching a movie than as if you've somehow stumbled into a room with the
characters, only they're too self-involved to notice you're even there.
The dialogue in The End of the Tour is very good—intelligent,
certainly, but in an organic and realistic way (the screenplay is by
playwright Donald Margulies, adapting Lipsky's book)—but the words
themselves are less important than who's speaking them, and why. Wallace
and Lipsky's conversations range from the academic (so, just what is Infinite Jest
about, anyway?) to the personal (Wallace repeatedly talks about his
ever-present fear of loneliness, as well as his battles with alcoholism)
to the banal (the two eagerly discuss, at various points, the approachable hotness of Alanis Morissette and the glory of the original Die Hard).
Yet underlying everything is an unrelenting game of thrust-and-parry;
Lipsky persistently attempts to decode this writer who has created a
seismically relevant work, while Wallace steadfastly presents himself as
a relatively normal dude who happens to be good with words.
This results in an intriguing sense of mystery about who Wallace is, a
mystery that Lipsky can never quite solve. The reporter views the
novelist with a combination of envy and awe, but what maddens Lipsky is
how Wallace continually insists that these feelings are misguided, even
though all evidence—most notably the 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest
(which, I should disclose, I've never read)—suggests to the contrary.
Of course, what Lipsky (himself a novelist) really desires to do is
surpass Wallace, but how can he do that if he can't even understand him?
Yet as good as Segel is, The End of the Tour belongs to
Eisenberg. His Lipsky is a hauntingly real and fragile figure, somehow
both sycophantic and predatory. He is constantly extolling Wallace's
genius, and there is undeniable sincerity in his praise. Yet he also
wants to extract that genius, bottle it, and use it for his own selfish
ends. Eisenberg dexterously evokes the impulses warring within Lipsky:
the resentment mingling with curiosity, the ambition mixed with
admiration. Yes, he wants to write a killer story for Rolling Stone,
but he also truly wants to discover just how a man who can barely look
after his dogs could also be mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway.
One of the movie's best scenes occurs when Lipsky briefly finds himself
alone in Wallace's house, and he springs into action, narrating
breathlessly into his tape recorder as he catalogues all of the
adornments that he sees on the walls and furniture before finally
stopping himself. It's a moment that encapsulates all of the feelings
swirling within him, one after the other flickering across Eisenberg's
face. The most powerful of these, tucked beneath the greed and the
bitterness and the shame, is genuine sympathy; Lipsky recognizes with
acute clarity that, as brilliant as Wallace may be, he is nevertheless
plagued by isolation, self-doubt, and sadness.