In 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent just under a week living and traveling with author and University of Arizona graduate David Foster Wallace. Wallace was winding up a book tour in support of his highly acclaimed, wonderfully crazy, mammoth novel Infinite Jest, and Lipsky thought that there was no better time to spotlight an author in one of America’s most popular magazines.
The interview never got published in the magazine, and Wallace committed suicide 12 years later at the age of 46.
Lipsky, who kept his interview tapes, used them for his book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, published shortly after Wallace’s death. That book has been adapted into the beautiful and heartbreaking The End of the Tour starring Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel in a surprising, non-comedic turn as Wallace.
The movie is beautiful in that it’s so eloquent in the way it shows two young writers simply talking to one another about their craft, and deftly illustrates how Wallace thought and spoke thanks to an incredible performance from Segel. It’s heartbreaking in that we viewers know what fate awaits Wallace 12 years after their meeting.
Segel’s Wallace is a likeable, slightly strange, shy man who knows he’s supposed to open up to Lipsky and his story for promotion’s sake, but fears sounding stupid and selling out. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is the consummate journalist, married to his cassette recorder, examining medicine cabinets, and looking for that moment to pounce with that heroin question he’s supposed to ask. (Lipsky’s editor, as played by Ron Livingston, insists that Wallace’s suspected heroin use should be the heart of the story.)
When Lipsky shows up at Wallace’s snowy Illinois home to start the interview, he doesn’t encounter some conceited intellectual guy drinking up newfound fame and partying with groupies. He encounters a humble man alone in his house, living a quiet life with two crazy dogs and Pop Tarts for breakfast. Lipsky and Wallace immediately commence trying to establish a level of trust. Segel and Lipsky make their back-and-forth always convincing.
Tour then progresses into a road movie as the two travel to Minneapolis on the final leg of the Infinite Jest book tour. It’s on this trip that Wallace reveals an addiction to television, an addiction so bad he refuses to have a TV in his house.
It also touches upon the sadness and problems that plagued Wallace, made most evident when the two square off over Wallace’s college sweetheart (Mickey Sumner). Segel and Eisenberg make this particular moment an uncomfortable and even scary one. Segel, without outright declaring what his afflictions were, gives us real insight into the insecurities and conflicts that beat Wallace down in the end. It’s easily the best-acted moment of his film career.
Directed by James Ponsoldt, who is on a hot streak with this and prior films The Spectacular Now and Smashed, the film offers nice insight into the sudden fame that Wallace achieved, and the journalist who was fascinated by it. The settings of snowy Bloomington, Illinois, and Minneapolis—snowy Michigan also often substituting for the cities—provide the perfect tone for the film. Danny Elfman contributes an evocative, soothing soundtrack, which is miles away from his more burlesque work with the likes of Tim Burton.
The film is a remarkable give-and-take between two actors. There’s often sweetness and warmth to it, but there’s also the ever-present undercurrent of melancholy. Segel personifies Wallace in just the way you’d expect to see the man who wrote the wild, introspective prose of Infinite Jest. He was a confusing, brilliant, sorrowful, funny, complicated, gifted man, and there’s no doubt Segel was aware of that with every second he spent before cameras making this movie.
The film plays with the notion that no matter how well a journalist and a subject hit it off, friendship can’t come before the story. There’s a real sadness in the idea that, without the need to do an interview, these two could’ve been real pals.