“You might just have to read it”
A young writer whose day job involved scribing 500-word reviews of boy band albums during the 90s comes to the decision of pitching his editor something Rolling Stone hadn’t done in years: interview an author. Who better than in-the-moment rockstar David Foster Wallace on the road promoting his magnum opus Infinite Jest? Thus begins a five-day tape-recorded session taking place inside Wallace’s home, his college, multiple airplanes and automobiles, and the Minneapolis, MN hotel hosting his final stop. Even though that initial article was never written, the material would prove too resonate to ignore twelve years later in the aftermath of David’s 2008 suicide. So David Lipsky unearthed the tapes and wrote a memoir that’s now seen its journey to the center of a writer’s soul projected onscreen.
It was playwright Donald Margulies who took Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and reworked it into a script—a seemingly straightforward task considering the journalist transcribed his conversations with Wallace verbatim to posthumously assuage the deceased’s fear of having his words molded by an outsider. Even so, Wallace’s estate still distanced itself from the project, explaining how he never would have approved the raw material becoming anything but the article to which was originally agreed. You have to admire its heartfelt tribute to this legend regardless, though—his kindness, troubles, and everyman mystique shining through Jason Segel‘s performance. Lipsky and Margulies could have easily added their own spin, but besides including some off-the-record stuff to flesh things out they’ve embraced authenticity above commercial editorializing.
In all honesty The End of the Tour‘s love letter is captivating enough for the layman and intimate enough fans of Wallace looking for answers via his words during this hectic period. Even the artists who became involved with the film whether director James Ponsoldt (Margulies’ former student with whom the screenwriter approached early on) or lead actors Segel (Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (Lipsky) were fans coming from a place of idolization themselves. It therefore becomes a memorial rather than exposé, the only thing it could after hearing its subject admit he didn’t live the life that sells magazines. He was a depressive television addict who fell under the weight of loneliness; a regular guy with an infectious genius that earned fame he refused to let consume him.
The film is virtually a reenactment with Segel and Eisenberg speaking the words Wallace and Lipsky did over a decade ago. Everything else comes from the commentary inside Lipsky’s book or more contextually relevant conversations shared with Margulies to keep things accurate and moving in the gaps. What results is a closed circle of respect and appreciation—easy dialogue and riffing between kindred spirits who grow to admire one another with a pinch of jealousy. Lipsky obviously covets Wallace’s fame and critical acclaim from the start having published his own novel that year with nowhere near Infinite Jest‘s earned buzz, but Wallace is also painted as coveting Lipsky’s ease engaging strangers. Neither would wish their lives on the other and yet there’s something to both wishing switching possible.
A friendship blossoms between them even if we don’t learn whether one continued beyond the road trip. Wallace invites Lipsky in to hear deeply personal aspects you wouldn’t expect considering the interview began with him nervous the interviewer had his personal number. His insights on life, celebrity, anxiety, and addiction are all worth listening to because each is delivered without artifice. And even though Lipsky explodes during one scene to label everything Wallace send an act, we in the audience don’t believe it. The interviewer was simply letting emotions from a confrontation the evening before get the best of him. Looking at Segel is to see a naked soul desperate to keep his head above water. The effort to cultivate any persona beyond truth was impossible to conjure.
It’s a tough film to watch in light of what happened because you see the earmarks of the depression Wallace faced for years—the same thoughts he admits to having put him on suicide watch in the past. Segel brilliantly portrays this troubled psyche with expertly soft-spoken care; constantly finding it difficult to turn his brain off once it latches onto something he cannot avoid. “Playing the game” as celebrities are trained to do when promoting work was definitely not Wallace’s strongest suit, but you have to wonder if that wasn’t conscious. Hearing him speak about fearing fame is to understand a person who knew he’d embrace it completely. One crack letting it in would spell the end of who he wanted to be as a human being.
David Foster Wallace is portrayed as a humble everyman with an intellect that scared him too much to wield it outside his small, manageable sphere. An anxious, worried person to his core, the flood of attention and notoriety brought a false sense of reality he struggled to keep separate. You can see that any rough patches with Lipsky feed this fact because this stranger was someone he could call a friend—someone with similar interests and mindset to talk for hours and truly have fun. But underneath that was the knowledge Lipsky joined him for a specific reason. His agenda wasn’t hidden, but the comradery and laughter could make it seem as though it was. I can only imagine that constant uncertainty always second-guessing your ability to trust.
We see him isolated as an intentional response. If not alone or with his dogs he remains safe in the car despite his driver (Joan Cusack‘s Patty) recommending sightseeing or in the company of old friends (Mickey Sumner‘s Betsy and Mamie Gummer‘s Julie) with familiarity. It’s fascinating to see Wallace stop himself every time this same familiarity grows with Lipsky because he remembers the potential of it shattering. Maybe he’ll open up too much and Lipsky will betray him or maybe he’ll grow so attached that Lipsky leaving will hurt. Letting him in ending sadly for Wallace was inevitable whether the article was positive or not. But he ultimately finds a way to do it and we now have one final look into his genius as a result.