A look at the normal side of genius is well and good. But maybe something could happen in The End of the Tour? Anything? The first film to portray author David Foster Wallace comes a bit too soon if you ask me because: What's the point? Wallace, who treasured being a normal guy and loathed celebrity, is no great film character. Jason Segel, who plays Wallace, tries to make him one by not relaxing for one second of the production. But the words don't lie.
Back in 1996, Rolling Stone reporter and author David Lipsky interviewed and lived with Wallace for five days. The interview never ran. Wallace took his own life in 2008. Lipsky went back to the tapes when he heard, and by 2010, he had a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Seems like Wallace's death made that shelved interview a bit more interesting.
The thing is, it's not. It's no verbal sparring session. It's just a garden-variety interview. Lipsky's book is largely transcribed from the interview tapes. Tapes from the third wheel on their road trip—Lipsky's recorder, a device no interviewee is thrilled about seeing. In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lipsky, is never seen without it. These tapes are so ordinary, it makes sense why the Rolling Stone piece never ran. Wallace's death changed everything. Suddenly, every interview he ever gave became important. And that's why this movie was made. It's doubtful Wallace would've approved.
The End of the Tour begins with Lipsky hearing the news of Wallace's death. In his apartment, he digs out the old interview. Flashback takes us there. It's 1996, Jest has just been released and Lipsky is skeptical of its enormous praise. But then he reads it. Soon after, he's pitching an interview with Wallace to his editor (Ron Livingston). Offscreen, Wallace agrees to talk. Lipsky will stay with the author at his home in Bloomington, IL (Wallace taught at Illinois State for years) and then travel with him to Minnesota to finish the book tour.
It's here we get our first glimpse of David Foster Wallace onscreen. It might as well be Jesus. Segel has a few moments, a few impressive long takes, but his performance is a carefully calculated exercise in worship. There's no real person there. This is an actor with a great reverence for his character and he's too careful with the performance. Segel carries Wallace's suicide with him the entire film, like he's petrified of it.
And how could he not be? It's too soon for this. I got the same uneasy feeling watching Amy earlier this Summer. Inherently, Wallace's suicide hangs like a cloud over the film. Anyone who knows his work will be looking for the signs. Why did he do it? But The End of the Tour offers no answers. There aren't any. Lipsky does broach the topic of Wallace's depression (the writer attempted suicide in his 20s and was admitted to Harvard's McLean hospital in 1989) but there's nothing here that can't be found in D.T. Max's biography.
"You don’t crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author is a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant.” This sentiment by Lipsky is the film's shining moment. Whether Wallace wants to be or not, he was special. And the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter proves it. What I can't get past is how little Lipsky gets out of Wallace. The film is conversation after conversation, at Wallace's house, in his car, at a diner... and nothing intellectual is gleaned. Lipsky tells his editor he doesn't want to write about boy bands, but one of his first conversations with Wallace is about his Alanis Morissette poster.
James Ponsoldt, the director behind The Spectacular Now, works off an unspectacular script by playwright Donald Margulies. Ponsoldt has a talent for capturing intimacy and it's admirable he's interested more in the everyday trappings of life than car chases. But he's made a film that feels like an empty chasm. There's little intimacy between anyone and a reporter, and even less so between a hyper-sensitive artist like Wallace and a reporter. His guard is up the whole time. He even gets angry with Lipsky for flirting with his ex-girlfriend. Wow, even Wallace gets jealous. He really is just a normal dude. Give me a break.
Segel, as I mentioned, never really gets it. His performance is likable because he is, but you can feel him repeating the word "tortured genius" again and again in his brain. Eisenberg is better as Lipsky, his unflinching stare offering glimpses of envy at every turn (although he has no idea how to smoke a cigarette). When he hits on the ex-girlfriend, he makes it seem premeditated, like he wants to stick it to Wallace for being the genius he can't be. We need more moments like that. I really don't care that Wallace loved dogs and Die Hard. Everyone likes Die Hard.