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ZAC STREVENS – Montreal
“There better be a story there.” The warning given to writer David Lipsky before he embarks on his latest piece is a similar reservation to the one audiences may have regarding The End of the Tour. Ostensibly, this is just a series of conversations in different unexciting locations – not overly cinematic.
Luckily, the subject matter is compelling. The screenplay moves from subject to subject – fame, TV, technology, pornography, loneliness, the dark side of dedication, marriage, family, children, pop-culture, addiction – at a steady pace, sometimes so briefly you wish the film had time to explore these points more deeply. But you always at least appreciate the point being made.
We open to the news that David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal), an intellect compared to J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, has committed suicide. David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a fellow writer, is contacted for verification as to if it’s a hoax or not. It is not.
Floored, Lipsky reminisces to a time 12 years previous. During the fanfare that surrounds the 1996 release of Wallace’s decade-defining novel Infinite Jest, Lipsky convinces (pretty bloody easily it must be said) his Rolling Stone editor (Ron Livingston) to allow him to write a piece on the man who has become one of the most famous writers in the world. “There’s never been a writer like this,” is the line Lipsky uses to seal the deal. Lipsky then travels to Illinois to meet Wallace at his home before accompanying him to Minneapolis-St Paul for the final stop on Wallace’s book tour. Incidentally, that particular Rolling Stone article never ran, but the days Lipsky spent with Wallace had a lasting and profound effect.
The screenplay, the first from Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, serves as a transcript of two men trying to discover the other. Lipsky wants everything that Wallace has and embodies, and ironically would later go close to achieving through the memoir of this exact meeting (Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, the book on which this film is based). Conversely, Wallace, obsessed with outside perception, is wary of his interviewer’s motives and opinion, while also noting in Lipsky the same insecurities he himself is burdened with and that were only accentuated by success. The dialogue is dense but never verbose, the conversation smart but never alienating.
Director James Ponsoldt knows that this is not his show, and as such the film is shot in a subtly voyeuristic manner. The audience are pure observers, captivated by the ideas discussed but never wishing to join in. It’s a good thing too, as both men would be quite self-conscious and not as candid with a third person in the room silently watching the discourse.
This film is all about the two central performances. I can’t recall Jason Segal ever reaching the heights he does here, ever attempting it even. His Wallace is a force of neurosis and insight. He is subtle and soft-spoken, haunted by his achievement of the American Dream and thus wrestling with a “real fear of being a certain way.” Constantly self-deprecating, but not in a way that’s fishing for compliments, Wallace is nevertheless quite charming and disarming, but his paranoia and ability to give an understated dressing down bubbles beneath his genuine likability.
Wallace’s faults bring out the best in Eisenberg. Initially in search of approval and nursing a jealous admiration, it’s when he is directly confronted by Wallace that he sees the human behind the genius. When a hero, even if it is a contemporary, displays what you perceive as a strong character flaw, you’ll be angry. Perhaps that rage is even projected as you become angry with yourself: how could you ever become the personification of brilliance if a man like David Foster Wallace can’t?
The event that ignites this confrontation may appear like a contrived device used for dramatic effect, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Margulies explains, “I wouldn’t have known [of the event] if David Lipsky hadn’t shared that with me… So there were things that I pulled to [the screenplay] that were not in the book. But certainly not anything that didn’t happen.”
That Lipsky is potentially ignoring Lester Bang’s advice and “making friends with the rock star” eventually leads to him asking the tabloid questions he was hoping to avoid. It’s an authentic exploration of the interviewer/interviewee personal/impersonal dance. Early, and in their own way, both try to define the role of the other in the scenario while maintaining civility, but eventually respect becomes reciprocal and a relationship grows. Both men are obsessed with image and validation, which makes sense is an exploration into the mind of a writer.
Much about the film seems prophetic. Discussion about a technologically-minded culture that in the mid-to-late 90s was on the cusp of exponentially exploding makes you question what we’re doing twenty years later. Is it good? Bad? Gluttonous? Can we put a label on it?
“Imagine the greatest conversation you ever had.” The tagline on the poster for The End of the Tour conveys the motivation Lipsky felt for writing his book. Perhaps the greatest thing about the exchanges between Wallace and Lipsky is that they are so exoteric. They are inviting, from two exceedingly intelligent men who don’t scream intellectual. The experience is relatable and human. And, of course, you may find some help in becoming yourself.
Zac Strevens is Editor-In-Coost of The Coost.com. After previously calling Melbourne and London home, he currently resides in Montreal, where he is either sweating or freezing. His work has been published in SEN Inside Football. @zstrevens