Are films that dramatize the lives of noteworthy people obliged to illuminate what makes them noteworthy? If so, the David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour had its work cut out for it. Depicting a musician, politician or sports icon, whose accomplishments lend themselves to cinematic portrayal alongside their lives, is easier than portraying a writer, whose work or life can be adapted for the silver screen, but rarely at the same time.
Director James Ponsoldt grasps at both aims. The End of the Tour is ostensibly a portrait of the famed writer, set during the 1996 book tour promoting his famously unfilmable magnum opus, Infinite Jest. The film is adapted from Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, journalist David Lipsky's 2010 book about the Midwestern road trip he spent with Wallace during the last five days of the tour. Lipsky's assignment was for a Rolling Stone profile that was later scuttled. After Wallace's suicide in 2008, Lipsky reassembled his notes and interviews in a nonfiction book.
Lipsky's narrative, adapted for the screen by playwright Donald Margulies, repeatedly informs us of Wallace's genius without providing much evidence for it. Comedic actor Jason Segel channels the bandana-clad author's idiosyncratic personality in a portrait of a rising star ill at ease with the trappings of fame but cognizant of its spoils. For Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg, who, as usual, is really playing Jesse Eisenberg), Wallace's unassuming house in Bloomington, Illinois, adorned with Barney bath towels and an Alanis Morissette poster, is the antithesis of the literati ideal.
Wallace's self-effacement confounds and eventually infuriates Lipsky as the tension between interviewer and subject—the film's true fulcrum—increases. The byplay between the two Davids recalls Mozart and Salieri. Lipsky, an aspiring author, covets Wallace's brilliance and resents the way he seems to suppress it.
Meanwhile, Wallace's social awkwardness and well-chronicled depressive paranoia emerge. He rebukes Lipsky for ingratiating himself to his friends and co-opting his lingo. "You agreed to this interview!" Lipsky repeatedly reminds him, and seems to consider this assent a license to rummage through Wallace's medicine cabinet and (apparently) flirt with his former college fling.
As Lipsky and Wallace part, Lipsky sheepishly presents a copy of his modest novel, The Art Fair, to the literary genius. When Lipsky casually mentions that he got to choose the cover art for the UK printing, Wallace snaps, "You mean you ..." before catching the competitive crack in his veneer. Whether his aw-shucks exterior is genuine or put on is an intriguing riddle, but it's not one this film is able to answer.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Infinite pest."