“I’m not so sure you want to be me.”
These are the words that we are left with at the end of End of the Tour, the most sombre road trip movie I can imagine shared by star and fan. It is the voice of David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest) that helps transcend convention for this feature, and it is raw human condition that is under scrutiny. Filled from beginning to end with insights that hit you as hard as iced water on a chilly morning in Illinois, the movie is immaculately scripted and questions the pursuit of our idols, and the never-winning nature of human pursuit. One perhaps a little closer to home for readers of Wallace, this is one film that will easily slip under the radar for the majority of cinematic audiences, but will prove that much more effective for those who are familiar with the man. As Dave Lipsky says early on in the film, “reading you is another way of meeting you”; where the film succeeds is in its intended incomprehension of Wallace through the eyes of a Rolling Stone interviewer who in a matter of a month has become perhaps one of his biggest fans.
David Foster Wallace has been a regular on my bookshelf for some time, and my love for ‘Infinite Jest’ made my expectations for this film a lot more personal than any other. For the uninitiated, Wallace burst onto the literature scene in 1996 with his magnum opus, running at the gargantuan volume of a thousand pages which made many describe the doorstep delivery to have reminded them of the bomb. His unrestrained and highly complex narration on things that formed a staple of his daily life – from politics to McDonalds – came as a breath of fresh air in a time when most others were looking to more mysterious lands than the American suburbia for their inspiration. End of the Tour tells the part-fictitious story of Dave Lipsky, the Rolling Stone reporter who interviewed Wallace as he accompanied him on his book tour. Although at first set up as a film about Wallace, James Ponsoldt’s film understands the inadequacy of a road-trip conversation in capturing the essence of the man whom a thousand pages still couldn’t cover; or at least does not venture out into territory it may be incapable of. Powered by surprisingly real performances from both Jason Segel – in a refreshing escape from the character he plays in every comedy – and Jesse Eisenberg, End of the Tour is an intimate movie that is more about Lipsky than Wallace.
What one notices right off the bat is the movie’s striking deference to the more biographical route it could have taken; instead the film begins and ends with Lipsky for a reason. Now while many of his fans may find this irreverent, I think the intention of the film is misunderstood. While it is certainly Wallace’s unique mood and perspective that shapes the film, End of the Tour is at its heart a poignant story of ambition and the illusion that fame constantly exudes to those flocking to it. In many ways, Ponsoldt’s film reminded me of Almost Famous, where a 15 year old boy with his heart after rock n’ roll gets a glimpse into what lies behind all the glamour; though End of the Tour isn’t at all what I’d recommend to someone who liked the former. Tonally very different films, where they coincide (aside from both protagonists being Rolling Stone reporters) is in the use of the voice of someone who yearns for the pedestal and completion that all of us believe to reside within celebrity success. Lipsky here is an incredibly jealous man, whose first reaction to Jest’s reviews is one of flabbergastation, which after a read turns into praise which seems tainted with want. He is an impatient man who feels alongside his admiration for Wallace, an inexplicable resentment for his success; something almost all of us have felt toward our idols. Though it receives no mention in the movie, I believe this could in some part be due to Wallace’s highly literary style which may come off as pretentious at first glance. Indeed, through all his smiles of awe and appreciation, it is not hard to see the green which drives him to look behind what makes his idol tick, hoping to perhaps replicate it for himself. And it is a role that is carried wonderfully by Eisenberg, who is perfect for a specific type of annoying character that isn’t afraid to let the audience hate him.
Though the film uses the narrative of Lipsky to propel its story forward, at the heart still lies the inimitable genius of David Foster Wallace, the purpose of whose opus was, as he said it, ‘to make heads throb heart-like.’ Though not clear to anyone who reads his work, Wallace is a hesitant and incredibly awkward man, something that shows itself in Lipsky’s first meeting with the author. He is not one used to having people talking to him, and whose social circle is usually limited to his two dogs and the kids he teaches English at the Illinois State University. It is something that does not hit us immediately about authors, that though millions everywhere are reading their words, all the author ever sees are his pages, coffee and typewriter. This is something that Stephen King (another one of my favourites) jokes about at every public session he conducts; that it’s nothing short of shock that rushes to the author’s minds when they see the people who have actually read their material. The awkwardness is heightened for Wallace, whose conclusions on life and the American dream have sent him into the depths of depression and have made him an uncomfortable person to be around. Never sure of himself or what he has done, Wallace operates his life around self-devised social coping mechanisms; one of which is interviewing his interviewer. In an interview back in 2003, when asked questions on topics that might seem easy as pie for someone who writes as he does, Wallace goes, “I’m grasping for something interesting to say.” At the same time unsure of the worth of his words and apprehensive of hurting others’ feelings – as he explains to Lipsky – his character is incredibly complicated to pull off. It is also a character whose essence Jason Segel efficiently draws out, despite not looking or sounding anything like the real man.
There are many hard-hitting statements made in End of the Tour, which is what succeeds in capturing the insight of his work: putting thoughts that have crossed all of our minds at some time, in a shockingly new light that throws the audience/readers off their guard. This intimate window into his life as it existed when the tour was done, secluded in the wintery landscapes of small-town Ohio, is what makes the film so compelling and bounds more moving than any other film about two characters simply talking to each other. One facet I’ve left out so far is the melange of emotions through which the story is driven, something reflective of Wallace’s work. In the same interview that I talked about before, he says: “There are forms of humour that offer escapes from pain, and there are forms of humour that transfigure pain”, before proceeding to don his face with a clumsy and apprehensive expression. Humour is constantly employed in his writing to reflect on real events, but it is a different shade than the political satire we are accustomed to by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. It is a voice that under the constant pain the author is in, manages to laugh at itself and the deplorable condition of our existence; not because it is effective, but because it knows no other way to keep living. It is perhaps this depressive tone that birthed the rumours of heroin addiction around Wallace, something that plays an important role in the tension between him and Lipsky. The tension is taken to the jealous heights Lipksy’s character allows it, with his fear of this person more acclaimed than him stealing the attention. It is a sentiment echoed by every amateur who finds themselves in the company of an overshadowing presence. This tension finds its ebb and flow through their journey, as Lipsky realizes how much what Wallace warned him about was true: that he is indeed excruciating to be around. But this doesn’t stem from intolerance or insult, but finds its roots in the author’s fears, which are aplenty: from being afraid of parodying himself to that of his understanding of the American delusion that struggles against his will to live. In keeping with Wallace’s deconstruction of the American dream, the film echoes Infinite Jest in saying that there are addictions far worse than drugs, and yet far less glamorous that we fail to notice their tight grip on our existence.
What is ultimately arrived at through this bleak portrait is a look beyond the delusion that fame offers, the only thing that keeps any of us pushing on toward our goals: that fulfilment is what awaits us at the top of the mountain. End of the Tour is here to shatter just that, through juxtaposing amateur and celebrity: showing us that neither is undoubtedly better poised than the other. In fact, the more stark realization that the audience is taken to – along with Lipsky – is that what accompanies success is a darker foreboding, one from which there is nothing more to push for, and yet wants satisfaction. A most non-cinematic feature, this adjective is a feather in the cap for Donald Margulies (screenplay) and Ponsoldt who effectively capture the bleak undertones of the late author while still proving a story of realization for Dave Lipsky, the admirer. Only achieved through the well-crafted dialogue between its two characters, and the actors themselves who strangely seem right for their roles, the film is one that will definitely go unnoticed by many, but treasured by the few who do chance upon it. While the themes may prove a little too dark or moody for some, End of the Tour does end on an elegant note, which offers respite from the truth, and leaves us with the thought that perhaps it is better to be ignorant and indulge the delusion; for that is the only way we can keep living.