It was at the 41-minute mark of “The End of the Tour” when my wife, who was not familiar with the author David Foster Wallace—but whom I dearly wanted her to get to know—turned to me, smiled, and said, “Honey, I’m sorry, but this movie is painful to watch.” She apologized again, grabbed a pack of cigarettes, went outside, and called her cousin. I can’t think of another time in our twelve-year history that my wife had bailed on a movie that I had asked her to watch. But despite Rotten Tomatoes 91% approval rating, the movie was just that bad1.
“The End of the Tour” was based on David Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which chronicled Lipsky’s five-day road trip with late author David Foster Wallace. The beginning of the movie took place in 2008 when Lipsky, a failed author and journalist (portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg), heard of Wallace’s passing. The film rushed through the news and into a flashback that began the bulk of the story: Lipsky giving a reading of his newly released novel to about seven spectators, eventually learning about Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and then getting the idea to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone magazine. I thought the film would slow down here, but it continued to rush through, glossing over Lipsky’s failure as a novelist and his envy turned curiosity of the prodigious author Wallace. This entire sequence of events comprised only three minutes and thirty seconds of the entire movie—that’s how freaking fast it moved. The film really didn’t slow down until Lipsky met Wallace (portrayed by Jason Segel), and then the movie hit the brakes and became barely anything more than a 90-minute crawl full of chopped up conversations that were a bit obfuscated for anyone unfamiliar with Wallace or had yet to read Lipsky’s book. The awkward exchange between interviewer and interviewee was tough to watch, mainly because the dramatization was flat out boring, yet I held out hope that something meaningful would develop. It didn’t. The film dragged along into what resembled its third act, a tiff between Wallace and Lipsky over Wallace’s ex-grad-school girlfriend they had met up with at Wallace’s final reading for the Infinite Jest book tour in Minnesota. Wallace and Lipsky sat for long stretches of awkward silence before suddenly diving back into deep conversations about esoteric topics. They returned to Wallace’s home (the trip concluded), the quarrel eventually ended and Lipsky departed. There’s a flash-forward to Lipsky giving a eulogy on Wallace, where he stated that his conversations with Wallace were the best he ever had—unfortunately, none of it came through in the film.
My only hope going into the viewing of “The End of the Tour” was that the movie would be interesting enough so to deliver a desire in my wife to read something David had written. Ironically enough, the fault of this film doesn’t fall on Jason Segel’s performance of the late author (I write ironically because I was convinced he was going to blow it); he actually provided some of the only bright spots in this flat, sunless film; it was Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of David Lipsky that was so hellaciously bad. He was about as unlikable of a character as one could imagine. It was Eisenberg who sent this film into flat fiery spin. And it wasn’t as if Eisenberg was an outright asshole, or some kind of nefarious villain, it was that he was so damn awkward and annoying with his twerpy little laugh, and pushy and immature. And at times he was downright creepy (Lipsky tried to hug Wallace near the end of the film, during a cringe-worthy goodbye), but mostly Eisenberg was just annoying and unlikable2.
Yet, in all actuality, it might be unfair to blame Eisenberg for all of the film’s faults, for which there are many, because a lot of it (if not all of it) belongs to the director, James Ponsoldt (“The Fault in Our Stars”). Ponsoldt amicably tried to create a very true and authentic telling of the five-day interview; however, who wants to watch a reenactment of a very unremarkable five-day interview? I’ve read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself two times, and as a Wallace fan I find the interview and the conversations fascinating, but nothing happens during these conversations that remotely resembles something filmable, which was a major concern of mine when this movie was officially announced last year (2014). And I think Ponsoldt and cast realized this at some point during filming and decided to spice up pieces of the dialog with tense performances, which really came across as forced and relatively untrue to the book. There was virtually no story arch (which, again, the book doesn’t have either) and yet there was this bizarre, shallow attempt to create one with the riff over the girl. It was like Ponsoldt was both reaching out and recoiling from the idea of fictionalizing drama for the sake of creating compelling content. And it doesn’t take a student of film to understand the catastrophic effects this so-so commitment can cause. Maybe if the film was at least visually interesting it could have held my attention, but visually there was nothing to cling to. Just about every shot was handheld (trying to create the documentary feel), which is pretty cliché for independent films, and just about every scene was either a medium shot of both Segel and Eisenberg, or a close up of one of their faces, the latter shot being unflattering for both actors, particularly Segel who wore Wallace’s signature bandana with fake stringy hair pouring out its sides. Segel did a fair job portraying Wallace, but he was really one shade away from looking like some Saturday Night Live parody of the man. And honestly it sucks that I even have to write these mean sounding things, because I really wanted this movie to be great despite my reservations about its existence. But I can’t ignore that “The End of the Tour” really came across as some film-school fan boy’s senior thesis, which seemed nothing more than an attempt to be taken serious while fully indulging in one’s obsession of a relatively obscure author. At the very least, Ponsoldt should have succeeded in creating a curiosity into who Wallace really was and what he had written, but unfortunately for me (and for anyone else who was hoping to use this movie as a device to introduce the author to someone else) he completely failed.
I don’t want this 1,484-word review to be entirely negative; there were a couple of moments in the film that did bring me some sort of pleasure, like when Lipsky and Wallace were at a small grocery and Wallace grabbed an arm full of junk food (which was one of Wallace’s charming quirks) or when . . .
I’m sure there was something else, but I’m drawing a blank. However, I freaking love the movie poster.
But aside from the cool art, “The End of the Tour” was nothing more than a stripped down version of David Lipsky’s book, which was purely written and filmed for David Foster Wallace fans. This view was further supported by Ponsoldt’s use of Brian Eno’s “Big Ship” at the end of the film without any previous mention that the song was Wallace’s favorite. I could go on and on about how Ponsoldt barely scratched the surface with regards to Wallace’s addictions and depression, or how he both loved and despised media attention, but I think film reviewer Jackson Cuidon stated it best when he wrote in his review of this film, “Having characters say things in a movie does not make your movie ‘about’ those things.” and “[I] worry that people will mistake what is essentially an arrow pointing toward meaningfulness for meaningfulness itself.”■
Footnotes in honor of David Foster Wallace:
1 (91% approval rating is a curious thing to me, because I can’t imagine that serious, professional film critics could honestly sit through this movie and truly believe it’s a four-star film, and yet almost all of them agreed that it was outstanding. I have a theory on this, too: I think it’s still vogue to think that anything touching David Foster Wallace is gold, just like magazines and literary journals used to publish every damn short story he’d submit to them despite his stretching the stories length beyond their limits. These kinds of things happen all of the time with artsy folk heroes: just look at how many Nirvana and Tupac singles had appeared posthumously. I mean seriously look, a lot of them are dreck.) Go Back
2 (Please don’t mistake me for being a Jesse Eisenberg hater, because I’m really not. I thought he was wonderful in “The Social Network” and “The Village,” and I look forward to seeing him as Lex Luthor in the upcoming “Batman v Superman.” I just think he was horribly miscast as David Lipsky.) Go Back