Talking the talk
Just as Truman Capote spun an evening with Marlon Brando into “The Duke in His Domain”—a 1957 New Yorker profile—and a lifetime of cocktail party anecdotes, David Lipsky turned a five-day assignment following Infinite Jest writer David Foster Wallace into his 2010 memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace and a lifetime of Wallace-related speaking engagements. Not a bad celebrity sighting exchange rate.
Now Lipsky’s memoir has been adapted for the screen by writer Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), with Jesse Eisenberg playing the subtly hostile hero-worshiper Lipsky and Jason Segel as the self-deprecating literary lion Wallace. Rather than the stuffy or self-infatuated film that you might expect, The End of the Tour is an intelligent and infectious two-hander, a My McDonald’s Breakfast with David explosion of engrossing conversation, and an insightful look into the competitive insecurities that eat away at writers of all statures.
The film opens in 2008 as Lipsky learns of Wallace’s death by suicide, but quickly flashes back to 1996, where Lipsky pushes his Rolling Stone editors to assign him to a Wallace interview. At the time, the unkempt and perpetually bandana-ed Wallace was red-hot in the literary world following the publication of Infinite Jest, yet still maintained a very modest and solitary existence teaching at Illinois State University, living all alone in his “literary dorm room” with a couple of slobbering black dogs and piles upon piles of junk food.
The End of the Tour follows the hot-and-cold friendship that develops between Lipsky and Wallace as they wind up the Infinite Jest book tour together, following their bull sessions on long, snowy car rides and in mid-level Minneapolis hotels. Their conversation touches on a wide range of topics, from Wallace’s “normal” childhood to his discomfort with fame to an erotic image of Alanis Morissette eating a ham sandwich. It’s not about the writing process as much as it’s about the writing ego, an easily wounded monster that both craves and dreads validation.
With his omnipresent tape recorder constantly clicking and humming, Lipsky tries to get the shy and evasive Wallace to open up about his life. Wallace, meanwhile, seems more concerned with how he’ll be portrayed by Lipsky: almost every one of Wallace’s remarks is followed by a “10 percent joking,” worst-case scenario of how it could get framed in the pages of Rolling Stone. Then a struggling novelist himself, Lipsky desperately coveted the adoring crowds and universal acclaim that Wallace deflected away, and he’s nonplussed to find his unquestioned superior harboring such profound self-doubts.
Segel does great work in an atypical role as Wallace, resisting the temptation of impersonation in order to cut at something deeper and more personal—he’s a lot more than a bandanna and a scraggly wig. Unsurprisingly, Segel is getting awards buzz for his performance, but Eisenberg is even more impressive as Lipsky, the smirking Salieri to Segel’s awkward Amadeus, all needy, nervous laughter and simmering resentment. Their crackling chemistry is essential for a film that finds all of its action in conversation.