Flipping through the dense pages of celebrated author David Foster Wallace, it’s easy to become intimidated, inspired, and maybe also completely lost. The self-conscious, world-aware writer’s towering achievements changed the landscape of the literary scene – but would such virtuoso talent stick to the screen in a meaningful way? Would his acutely attuned insight make the translatory leap from narrator to character? Let’s explain in terms of Wallace’s writing: perhaps the inimitable length of his works are the cause of not huge, sweeping statements, but rather lots of little, smaller observations that add up to a greater whole. The End of the Tour, a new movie about a memorable meeting with Wallace, adds up lots of little things of its own, and the whole is great indeed.
David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a new journalist for Rolling Stone. Tired of ‘writing about boy bands’, he finds his passions fired up when he discovers Infinite Jest – freshly published, and already stirring up a storm in the literary world – and decides that a piece on its author, David Foster Wallace, is his ticket to doing some truly interesting, important work. Upon arriving at Wallace’s place, he’s greeted by an unkempt, unassuming man who lives with his two dogs, is socially awkward, is shy of his own intellect, and is Jason Segel. For the next three days, they practically share the same few feet of space as Wallace completes his Infinite Jest book tour; while they warm to each other quickly, their similarities soon cause just as much friction as mutual respect – a potentially beautiful friendship that is threatened before it’s ever really begun.
Part road-trip, part unconventional love story and part existential treatise on the human condition, The End of the Tour’s qualities come from its searing simplicity. Not much more than a two-handed dialogue-exchange on a basic storytelling level, and boasting as many bells and whistles as a stripped-back Civic on a visual one, the movie should feel as lifeless as it sounds. And yet director James Ponsoldt – who last helmed The Spectacular Now – makes even the potentially drab elements sing and serve their purpose. At the centre of it all, of course, are the performances from Eisenberg and Segel, the former playing his familiar yet endlessly enjoyable strengths to the maximum, and the latter showing himself to be nothing short of revelatory. We often talk of actors inhabiting their roles, but we rarely mean it in any way that’s genuine; Segel inhabits his role, making for a performance that is far too unshowy to even get an Oscar nod, despite it possibly being the year’s best. But the actor-comedian-screenwriter accomplishes something far more lasting in his depiction of the writer, which is that for 106 minutes, we forget that the man David Wallace is no longer living, breathing, walking, eating, and sleeping among us. And all this from the man whose last lead performance was in Sex Tape.
Ponsoldt avoids depicting the literary genius as mad visionary, cultural prophet, nor even starving artist; instead, we get a damaged human, whose very humanity is at the core of why we connect with the many quasi-intellectual, singularly insightful things he says. The End of the Tour feels so personal, so tailored to our individual higher needs, and yet is so plainly universal, that it soon morphs into something precious you’d want to carry with you for good luck or encouragement – a token to remind you that someone, somewhere, is going through exactly the same thing as you. This unfussy, breathtakingly small yet boundless film is as close as we’ll get to having Wallace’s wit, warmth, humility and hunger back in the world, and after watching, those dense pages of his won’t look so intimidating anymore.