Early leaked set photos from The End of the Tour seemed like sure portents of disaster, with gangly goofball Jason Segel, decked out in the trademark accoutrements of bandana and glasses, inhabiting David Foster Wallace-style garb like a baggy costume. These images, combined with the generally abysmal success rate of movies about famous writers, raised questions about why this story was even being told, what was to be gained from callously leeching off the notoriously private author’s legacy, questions further validated by the refusal of the Foster Wallace estate to endorse the project. Surprisingly, the film itself is far from a disaster; it’s reserved, thoughtful, and genuinely engaging in its content, with an engrossing script and a complex performance from Segel. Yet even considering these qualities, the entire premise still feels ill-conceived, as the attempts to humanize and elucidate this subject butt up against the inherent limitations of a pedestrian, persona-focused approach to filmmaking.
This means that while The End of the Tour succeeds on a surface level, avoiding caricature and minimizing spurious drama, the process of reduction endemic to such a straightforward, unimaginative style of character-sketching nonetheless crushes Foster Wallace down into an emblematic focus point. Aware of this burden, the film spends most of its time on issues of perception and presentation. Taking place over four days, as Rolling Stone scribe and fellow novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) chronicles the conclusion of Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour, the narrative boils down to a series of rollicking, wide-ranging conversations, generally friendly but always edging toward potential conflict. Lipsky tries to come off as harmless, but Foster Wallace is keenly aware (and wary) of the hazards of his incipient fame, mindful of the power symbolized by the reporter’s ever-present recorder. He’s alternately honest and evasive, dithering between passionate loquaciousness and crippling doubt about the authenticity of the image he’s presenting.
Lipsky experiences a similar tension, seeking personal insight and friendship, but also bound by his assignment to dig up some dirt. A 30-year-old writer whose first novel has just been released to meager acclaim, his motives are mostly innocent, revolving around an aggrieved curiosity about what exactly separates his mid-range talent from his subject’s supposed genius. But the conception of the character as a hot-shot big-city novelist forced to supplicate himself before a small-town Midwestern eccentric never really comes off, partially because Eisenberg’s presentation of the character’s arrogant center is too diffuse and analytical. Segel, on the other hand, exhibits startling skill in inhabiting this imagined version of Foster Wallace, disappearing inside the tics and anxieties of a man plagued by his own obsession with analysis, his life governed less by specific addictions than an incessant need for stimulation, from movies and television to candy, cigarettes, and basic human interaction.
Yet despite the film’s dance-like configuration, in which the entire structure hinges on the entwined dynamic of two evenly balanced characters, its central sparring match never feels like a fair fight. This story is ultimately less about two different authors than the spectacle of a slender audience analogue gleaning secrets and wisdom from the mind of a tormented virtuoso. Lipsky is given surface qualities and internal conflicts, but his character is patently a device, a way for the filmmakers to try and comprehend Foster Wallace’s famously complex intellect. The film attempts to account for this imbalance through its careful depiction, but by positioning the deceased writer as indecipherable curiosity first, human being second, it can’t help but put him in a box. The insistent awareness of this fact doesn’t negate the fact that it’s happening, especially since no special effort is expended to deepen the portrayal beyond a stripped-down approach and a keen focus on performance. Foster Wallace therefore ends up inexorably enshrined as a certain type of sacred figure: the schlubby working-class genius seeking love and getting adulation instead, an anti-celebrity consumed by his foibles, addictions, and insecurities.
This is far from the worst portrayal that might have resulted, but constructing a movie around the tortured ambivalence of a man who may have eventually killed himself as a result of such issues still seems unsavory, no matter how delicately it’s handled. Further damning is the fact that while The End of the Tour does well in using dialogue to shape its escalating tête-à-tête, the filmmaking is too fuzzy to expand on those ideas. A lot of what occurs here is compelling, specifically the realization that for all their similarities, two men of such similar interests and backgrounds still can’t push beyond the basic apprehensions that keep them isolated and defensive. The flashy premise, however, only detracts from this dynamic. Fictionalized attempts to illuminate the psyches of recently departed celebrities remain the cheapest of cash-in opportunities, and The End of the Tour’s shrewd, respectable cautiousness doesn’t change that fact. The David Lipsky presented here fears mediocrity, and the film which gloms him onto Foster Wallace’s legacy confirms that suspicion, acting as little more than a trivial companion piece to the author’s voluminous, heartbreaking literary output.