"I don't mind being in Rolling Stone," David Foster Wallace tells his counterpart early on in The End of the Tour. "I just don't want to appear in Rolling Stone like someone who wants to be in Rolling Stone."
Wallace, the gifted author of Infinite Jest, would have hated that there was a movie about him. And, partly at least, he would have loved it. And he would have hated himself for secretly loving it a little bit. My guess is that he would have especially loathed the optics of The End of the Tour -- a quasi-road-trip story that doubles as a biopic and consists almost entirely of highfalutin conversations between two writers about the potentially toxic intersection of art and fame.
But I suspect if he had snuck in to a theater to actually take in the film -- and given his affinity for the medium, there's every reason to think he might have -- he would have ended up admiring what he saw. With Wallace, more than with most, that seems to count for a ton.
Funnyman Jason Segel plays the author, and he is joined by Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone writer who has come all the way out to his remote Illinois home to join him on the last leg of a book tour for Infinite Jest, the novel that has catapulted him to sudden fame. The pair are at once adversaries and brothers in arms. Both write after all. Wallace wrote plenty of nonfiction over the course of his life. Lipsky might make his money as a journalist, but he has just recently published his own novel. He is undeniably and openly envious of Wallace's success in fiction.
Lipsky is also there to shine a light on someone who is profoundly uncomfortable with it — someone who seems to know that whatever is written about him will be out of his control to a large degree and is mortified by that fact and the way that it bothers him. Lipsky is there ostensibly to document that sudden fame and to probe Wallace’s dark past — his depression, suicide attempt and rumors of heroin addiction. He wants to be Wallace’s friend — he wants to like him and be liked in return, but he also has a job to do. The ever-present tape recorder serves as an uncomfortable reminder that whatever rapport is established between the two comes with strings decidedly attached.
It also gives us an unusually realistic feel for Wallace — for his brilliance and neuroses, simply for the unusual way that he thought and processed the world. Many of Segel’s lines are verbatim, taken straight from the tapes that Lipsky eventually used as the meat of his book about the brief time he spent with Wallace. (The interview itself never actually appeared in Rolling Stone, but some time after Wallace died, Lipsky published a memoir about their time together, from which The End of the Tour was adapted.) This raw, unfiltered, genuine Wallace is a treat, both on its own and in the type of film that so often gives itself over to trite hagiography of the principal subject.
What should be so basic and familiar somehow manages not to be. It goes without saying that Wallace is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink. And Segel really is terrific as the late author, commanding one moment, fragile the next, flashing a boyish look of wonder over and over again to match Wallace’s mile-a-minute sensitivities. But Eisenberg’s Lipsky kind of makes the movie. He’s at once a “kid brother” to Wallace — nervously palming a copy of his own, much less acclaimed novel in hopes that his counterpart will give it a read — and a truly worthy companion — able to go round for round on any subject.
Eisenberg has made a career out of playing some version of this character — a lip-biting, stuttering ball of nerves one moment, fiery, passionate and confident in the next. And he is perfect here. Lipsky is flawed — envious, self-doubting, a little absorbed — but, at least in the movie, he comes off like a good journalist should. He shows compassion for his subject, but is unafraid of challenging him on key points. He is constantly collecting details — the result, no doubt, is a richer memoir and film.
Most important of all, he is capable of putting the audience on equal footing with, well, a genius — some reasonable approximation of him too, not just a distilled, easy-to-digest “genius.” This is no small feat.
Toward the end of the film, after they have returned from their more briskly paced, riotous jaunt to Minneapolis, Wallace and Lipsky pause in a snowy field back at Wallace’s home in Illinois. The sun is so bright it’s almost difficult to look at the screen — the brightness and whiteness collaborating with Danny Elfman’s eerie, excellent, seemingly R.E.M.-inspired score to bring the pair in to this odd, sharp kind of focus. Everything else feels or sounds blurry but their voices. Lipsky tells Wallace it is beautiful, that he could almost stay out in the field forever.
Even though the film itself has begun to drag just a bit by this point, you find yourself agreeing with him. The End of the Tour is a beautiful, imperfect snapshot of two men with whom I’d like to spend all night at a diner or all day in a car. Heck, I’d even stand in a cold, barren Illinois field for some extra time with the pair.