In the pantheon of contemporary literary icons, few loom larger than David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s gargantuan postmodern tome “Infinite Jest” has been – between its vast vocabulary, penchant for highly detailed footnotes, and nonlinear narrative structure – the bane of many readers (I spent a month plowing through it several summers ago). Yet although dense and difficult, the pages of “Infinite Jest” are littered with brilliant observations about the human experience, about human character, and about the culture in which today’s humans dwell.
“The End of the Tour,” for its part, depicts the multi-day interview between Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, playing…well, Jesse Eisenberg), an interview which occurred at the tail end of Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” book tour. Structurally, the film is little more than a series of extended conversations between Lipsky and Wallace as they move from locale to locale. In so doing, Lipsky grows to understand, piece by piece, a supremely complicated artist whose mind is clearly as multilayered as his novels.
At bottom, the film hinges on a clash between art and artifice, between Wallace’s deeply troubled craving for authenticity and Lipsky’s desire to pen a story that sells. As the interviews unfold, Wallace lays out a blistering critique of a television- and advertising-obsessed world, yet himself seems to have no answers to the haunting problem of human alienation. To both readers of his work and watchers of this film, Wallace presents an intellectual scalpel that cuts through accreted layers of self-delusion: are you living your life, or are you living the life that is presented to you by merchants of fantasy?
This is arthouse fare, to be sure, though of a singularly unpretentious kind. Though “The End of the Tour” deserves multiple awards – particularly a Best Actor nomination for Jason Segel, who’s playing dramatically against type here – nothing here feels like “Oscar bait.” The film’s pacing and structure are highly unconventional, the central figure is entirely unknown to the vast majority of moviegoing Americans, and the movie as a whole lacks the slick cinematic patina of a Tom Hooper or Joe Wright. That being said, Segel’s mesmeric performance steals the show, and one can easily forgive the film’s periodic draggy moments in light of this. As an agitated literary genius wracked by internal turbulence and a history of clinical depression – a complex figure for any actor – Segel triumphs.
Wallace himself, no doubt, would be horrified by the celebrity cult that has arisen around him since his untimely passing. And here, director James Ponsoldt wisely leaves unanswered the meta-question at the heart of this whole project: would “The End of the Tour” respect the wishes of its real-life subject?About that – as about much of Wallace’s fiction – there is much room for interpretation.
Anchored by a dominant star turn by Jason Segel, “The End of the Tour” both provokes and haunts.
Normalized Score: 5.8