The End of the Tour' looks for the meaning of life in a celebrity profile

Docudrama pays respects to David Foster Wallace and the written word

Monday August 10, 2015 04:00 am EDT

The 2008 suicide of writer David Foster Wallace sometimes gets compared to Kurt Cobain's death at his own hands 14 years earlier. Both were prodigiously talented, scruffily charismatic, artists in their chosen disciplines, and took themselves from the world with decades of potential work ahead of them. The novelist and the Nirvana frontman didn't just kill themselves, but also the books and songs they could have written.

The new film The End of the Tour includes bookends from 2008 that deal with the aftermath of Wallace's death, but primarily takes place over a week in 1996. The audience's foreknowledge of Wallace's fate brings more emotional and thematic heft to a small-scale, episodic story that brushes up against big ideas.

News of the tragedy causes New York journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) to unpack old interview cassettes and flash back to 1996. He'd just published his first novel to general indifference while Wallace's 1,000-plus page Infinite Jest set the publishing world ablaze. Lipsky pitches Rolling Stone magazine a story on Wallace, and thus accompanies the newly minted literary celebrity on the last leg of a Midwestern book tour.

When Lipsky arrives at Wallace's home, a small house on a snowy street, he finds the writer (Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Jason Segel) to be superficially friendly but also openly uncomfortable at being the subject of an in-depth profile. He practically winces every time Lipsky asks a probing question. While the pair bond over upper-level literary observations and lowbrow action movies (they see John Woo's Broken Arrow with some of Wallace's friends), there's a tension between them that never fully goes away. At the margins are Anna Chlumsky and Joan Cusack, overqualified in small roles as Lipsky's girlfriend and Wallace's local publicist, respectively.

I should say that in the late '90s, I interviewed Wallace when a subsequent press tour brought him to Atlanta, and found him to be charming, laid-back, and generous with his time, in sharp contrast to Segel's Wallace, who seems burned out by his craft and borderline hostile to Lipsky. Plus, given Segel's bulky physical dissimilarity to the writer, it took me awhile to get used to the film's characterization.

Nevertheless, Segel presents an extremely sensitive, subtle, and respectful portrayal of Wallace, conveying an intellect of such insight and awareness, it's not surprising he responds with ambivalence to celebrity and literary success. At one point, Wallace discusses the challenges of having a public persona: should he wear his signature "do-rag" because he likes it, or stop because it may be perceived as an affectation? He seems almost paralyzed by his ability to see every side of an issue.

Adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies, and based partly on Lipsky's extensive interview transcripts, The End of the Tour addresses common topics (literary envy) for fiction that seldom occur in films. Lipsky seldom verbalizes his jealousy of Wallace's achievement, but it's written all over Eisenberg's face, often to comic effect. Their articulated but mismatched personalities occasionally beg the question, is it better to be an insecure genius living in semi-obscurity, or a frustrated striver in the thick of the New York literary scene?

Directed by Georgia filmmaker James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour unfolds almost like a work of minimalism, with long, discursive conversations but small stakes beyond what happened in 2008. In its dogged naturalism, the film occasionally seems like it would really rather be a straight-up documentary than a dramatization. Nevertheless, The End of the Tour leaves you feeling like you've gained insight into the perceptions and sensibilities of two human beings, and you can't ask more of art than that. (3 out of 5 stars)

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