James Ponsoldt is a guy who gets it, the ‘it’ in this case being the nature of story as something both personal and interpersonal. His previous efforts, Smashed and The Spectacular Now, focused deeply on how our own stories are never just our own, and how the nature of our emotional evolution is intrinsically tied to those around us. In short, he understands human relationships in a way that few directors do, from the simple way we approach them, to our increasingly complex understanding of ourselves as a reflection of the people we want to be, and the people we want to be around.
The End of the Tour is no exception, re-telling the events re-told in David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, published shortly after the death of author David Foster Wallace, the book’s subject. The film chronicles the pair’s 1996 road trip during the final leg of Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour, the North American dystopia and addiction novel that cemented him as one of America’s great writers. It was the same book that drew Lipsky, a journalist for Rolling Stone at the time, to seek out Wallace and interview him for the magazine’s first piece on a writer in over a decade. The film is composed entirely of conversations, some on the record and some off, after Wallace’s reluctant agreement to let Lipsky accompany him. Lipsky, who’s enthralled by the very idea, sees Wallace as a celebrity of sorts, a genius whose work he adores, whereas Wallace tries his hardest to both see himself as and be seen as just a regular guy. As much as the film is a profile on Wallace, it’s not Wallace’s story. It’s about the man telling the story, as he wrestles with his dual intentions (writing the best possible piece, but also trying to get a juice drug scoop for his bosses), all the while coming to a better understanding of why he took the job in the first place.
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel sound a hell of a lot like Lipsky and Wallace, with Segel managing to capture the dichotomy of an honest, naked man shrouded in an aura of exciting mystery. Segel’s Wallace cherishes his “regular guy-ness”, an isolated man constantly attempting to separate himself from the grandeur people associate him with. Lipsky is one of those people, and he’s thrown by Wallace’s incredibly average household. There’s nothing spectacular about where Wallace lives, nor does he live in squalor, and although he welcomes Lipsky’s presence, he does so with a guarded fortitude. There are things and people he can talk about forever, but a handful he won’t even begin to broach for fear of scandal or misconstrual. Lipsky on the other hand, is eager to know all he can about the enigma that is David Foster Wallace, to the point where he’s disappointed and frustrated that he isn’t something otherworldly. At the same time however, he finds himself drawn in by Wallace’s simplicity, and by the fact that no matter which direction he steers the conversation in, it has an honest, humble quality to it
But does that make it truly honest?
The film initially tackles Wallace through a cynical lens, the same one employed by Lipsky and his superiors. While Lipsky has a fascination with him, an infatuation almost, it’s purely a construction of the fact that he’s a man with exposure in the media and a book that Lipsky fell in love with, which at times is justification enough. Lipsky’s a man who can’t quite find the right romantic relationship. Even the one he’s in feels wrong, and every interaction we see between Lipsky and his girlfriend feels detached, as if there’s something not quite whole about it, and he seems to want to find the missing piece, that emotional and intellectual satisfaction, through David Foster Wallace. As Wallace’s wall comes down and Lipsky gets caught up in the friendly honesty of it all, he sees that as license to go on his boss’ mission and dig up dirt on the rumors of Wallace’s supposed drug habits, a subject Wallace talked about in great detail in his fictional works. Conversations about Die Hard are a hell of a good time, but Lipsky is neither there to have a good time, nor is he able to recognize or reconcile with the fact that a good time is what he so desperately needs if he’s only able to see himself in other people’s shadows.
Despite its spontaneity, the film does at times fall victim to its own narrative structure, though it doesn’t so much plateau as it does lag temporarily. Once the initial scenes between the two Davids have overstayed their welcome, the dynamic shifts with the introduction of one of Wallace’s graduate school friends, a woman who Lipsky takes an immediate liking to. However, while the protective Wallace is concerned about Lipsky’s advances, the moment he chooses to intervene happens to be right when Lipsky asks if he can interview her about Wallace – but the effect is the same. There’s something lustful about Lipsky’s pursuit of the story, almost adulterous even, which makes it all the more fitting that he starts to be put off by his girlfriend’s growing fascination with Wallace.
While a significant chunk of the film’s scenes focus only on its two leads, Ponsoldt keeps things interesting with his intentional and theatrical staging, juxtaposed with an effervescent, free-flowing camera. It meanders between the well-established physical relationship between the two, and simply by changing the physical dynamic between scenes, he manages to keep things fresh & interesting. Opposite each other at a kitchen table. Walking behind one another at a convenience store. Side by side in a car. They’re never in the same space or in the same physical proximity from one scene to the next, and the only time they are (a 15 minute time jump while they’re seated at a diner), Ponsoldt simply switches over and films them from the opposite side. It’s a simple idea for what is a simply plotted film, though one can’t help but wonder whether or not its simplicity holds it back. Perhaps introducing a sense of dilemma or conflict a little earlier might’ve helped the whole endeavor, but when it finally does come to the surface, It does so with stunning dramatic potency.
Lipsky dips his foot into the water from time to time when it comes to the drug story, trying to get a better idea of what Wallace is up to in his hotel room without ever doing anything drastic. There’s little to be said when the two are at odds with each other, although it’s here that the camera stays as far away from Wallace as possible, allowing neither us nor Lipsky the proximity to him that we now crave. On the very last leg of their journey – Wallace’s drive home – they finally go at it, as Lipsky accuses Wallace of faking his “regular guy-ness”, an accusation that seems to stem from both wanting to get a rise out of him for the story, as well as from his own disappointment that Wallace is neither the mythical genius he believed him to be, nor the kind of complete degenerate that would’ve made for an especially interesting write-up. David Foster Wallace simply is.
But he’s not boring. Not for one second. He’s friendly and adversarial, guarded and welcoming, all at once. A complex person who exists outside of the narrow lens that one might see him through based purely on his work. His past experiences with addiction don’t define him, and his future involves no great adventures except more writing, and maybe some dancing. But as far as the spectrum of human experiences go, maybe that’s enough? There’s no glamour to Wallace’s situation, and for a man as isolated, even going to a nearby church is a big step, let alone actually connecting with a guy like Lipsky. The whole thing feels like one of those “you had to be there” conversations, and for many moments throughout, you feel like you are. And by the film’s end, Segel’s larger-than-life portrait that combines the best parts of himself and of Wallace’s simple philosophies has helped Ponsoldt paint a portrait of the realities of loneliness and comfort, two things once thought to be mutually exclusive, as Lipsky’s farewell to the character, his friend, acts as our goodbye as well. It’s a tribute to David Foster Wallace, showing him the way he would’ve liked to be seen, but it’s also a tribute to us, the people who crave the sort of connection that Jesse Eisenberg’s David Lipsky does, even though we think we want something greater. Sometimes simplicity is the best thing in the world, and perhaps we’d do well to figure out how much we really need it.