It would be impossible to disentangle all the threads of truth and fiction that weave together into James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour. Indeed, the movie is all about the blurry and ultimately unlocatable boundaries between reporting and storytelling, writing and living, being and pretending to be. Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace—a man who, as Donald Margulies’ screenplay explores at length, was keenly and sometimes excruciatingly aware of how he seemed to the outside world. Much of Wallace’s writing, fiction or nonfiction, was an attempt to map that largely uncharted layer of consciousness in which one is simultaneously behaving in the world and evaluating one’s own behavior as a social performance. At his best on the page, Wallace was a kind of exceptionally truthful actor, inviting readers to the intimate one-man show taking place in the theater of his own brain—which makes the notion of him being played by an actual actor all the more conceptually disorienting.
Then there’s the close-but-never-quite-converging relationship between The End of the Tour’s screenplay and Wallace’s real-life words (which, since he killed himself in 2008, have turned into precious commodities in a way he would have been peerless at satirizing). The source material for the script—from which Margulies draws many passages verbatim—is David Lipsky’s book about taking a road trip with Wallace from Bloomington, Illinois to St. Paul, Minnesota in the early spring of 1996. Infinite Jest, the 1,000-plus–page novel that got Wallace as close to being a household name as a writer of experimental fiction is likely to get, had been published a few weeks earlier to an avalanche of acclaim, and St. Paul would be Wallace’s last stop on a book tour that had left him enervated and wary of his sudden celebrity.* Lipsky, a reporter for Rolling Stone who had published one unsuccessful novel, went along with Wallace on the trip for the purpose of profiling him, but the profile was never published. Upon Wallace’s death 12 years later, Lipsky went back and listened again to the tapes of their time together. The book he wrote falls somewhere between a straight-up interview transcript (albeit of a highly unusual interview) and an annotated record of a real-life relationship—one which lasted only as long as that road trip, but which nonetheless drew its own complex pattern of seduction, intimacy, disappointment, and betrayal.
Lipsky appears in the book mainly as an amanuensis, and this is a movie in which Segel’s Wallace uses that very word to introduce his journalist sidekick, played by Jesse Eisenberg with just the right mix of fanboy idealization and writerly envy. Lipsky’s principal role in the book is to draw out his alternately talkative and reticent subject, sometimes by asking questions so skeletal in form that they scarcely make grammatical sense on the page. For the movie’s purposes, the character of Lipsky required considerable fleshing out—and that of Wallace required extensive pruning down from the prolix, free-associating presence in the book, a guy with insight to offer about everything from in-flight catalogues to the niceties of tipping in a Midwestern pizza parlor.
There are people—some of whom knew Wallace in life, others who simply feel they did from reading his work—who find the fact of Lipsky’s book’s very existence, not to mention a film adaptation of it, ghoulish and exploitative. Those people should definitely not see The End of the Tour, which, though I greatly enjoyed it and would watch it again, must be at some unavoidable level a betrayal of Wallace’s full complexity as a writer and human. What artist’s biopic—or, to take it a step further, what attempt of any kind to render an individual person’s complexity on a page, canvas, or screen—isn’t? Michael Pietsch, the editor of Infinite Jest and one of the main guardians of Wallace’s literary trust (along with the author’s widow, artist Karen Green) made clear to the Los Angeles Times his distaste for the entire project: “David would have howled the idea for it out of the room had it been suggested while he was living … the existence of a mythification of this brief passage of his life strikes me as an affront to him and to people who love his writing.” Wallace’s lawyer, speaking to the same reporter, put an even finer point on his objections: “We don’t care if the movie’s good or not good … People wouldn’t see this movie if it was just two guys driving around. They’re selling David’s good name. They’ve got Jason Segel putting a bandana on.”
Movie audiences, of course, aren’t made up of people with as close a relationship with Wallace’s work and legacy as his wife, his editor, and his lawyer. For plenty of people deciding whether or not to see The End of the Tour in coming weeks as it spreads to theaters across the country, its characters basically are “two guys driving around,” and the question of whether the movie is “good or not good,” whether it transcends its biographical specificity enough to be about something larger, makes a great deal of difference. To those potential viewers—who might be, like me, admirers of Wallace’s nonfiction who have not yet set out to conquer the steep rock face of prose that is Infinite Jest—I say give The End of the Tour a try. Ponsoldt’s gentle, talky road movie is a sort of Gen-X update of My Dinner With André: A movie of ideas that, far from being the pompous screed that category might imply, actually contains interesting ideas—and what’s more, allows its characters’ perspectives on those ideas to remain in productive tension with one another. (Remember André Gregory’s description of his nomadic, technology-eschewing lifestyle, followed by Wallace Shawn’s impassioned defense of his attachment to his cozy electric blanket?)
Wallace’s lawyer was completely right: The End of the Tour does star Jason Segel in a bandana. How you feel about that image is likely to determine how you feel about the movie—but maybe there’s no need to decide how you feel until you’ve seen it? For me, Segel seems the best casting choice imaginable for the part—if someone’s going to don that famous do-rag, I can’t think who’d wear it better. Like Wallace, Segel is a large man, a high-school jock with a hulking frame and regular-guy persona who nonetheless communicates a disarming level of candor and vulnerability. And like Wallace, Segel is also a professional writer, having scripted four of his own movies, co-authored a bestselling children’s book, and collaborated on other projects. So is Eisenberg—he’s had plays produced off-Broadway, and most recently, published humor columns in the New Yorker. Neither, of course, are of the same literary caliber as Wallace. (But if that’s your criterion, we should all give up.) Still, the fact of the actors’ real-life authorship lends their characters’ literary dick-measuring contests (which both Lipsky and Wallace can’t stop engaging in even as they mock themselves for it) an invigorating crackle.
Though much of it takes place in cars whose occupants are in a rush to get where they’re going, The End of the Tour is no Fast and Furious VIII. The main suspense on Lipsky and Wallace’s four-day road trip springs from whether or not one of the two will “get laid” (Wallace’s words) over the course of the St. Paul visit. Two young women–one (Mickey Summer) an old girlfriend of Wallace’s, the other (Mamie Gummer) a fan of his work who’s become a friend—pick up the guys at the reading and squire them around town. The foursome is apparently casual and platonic, but—especially during a cleverly staged scene in which we watch them all watching the John Travolta thriller Broken Arrow—meaningful glances abound, some of them expressing desire, some jealousy, some rage. In another mini-romantic intrigue, Lipsky calls his girlfriend back in New York (Anna Chlumsky). She’s in the midst of reading Infinite Jest, and Wallace hops on the phone to ask how she likes it—to Lipsky’s amusement, at least until his best girl and his ego ideal stay on the phone for half an hour, laughing at jokes he suspects may be about him.
James Ponsoldt’s specialty as a filmmaker has been the creation of believably intense dyads, relationships between two strong-willed individuals who both need and hurt one another. These have often been romantic pairings, like the alcoholic husband and wife played by Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in his too-little-seen second movie, Smashed, or the troubled teenage lovers in his equally assured popular breakthrough The Spectacular Now. (In Ponsoldt’s first movie, Off the Black, the central dyad consisted of a high-school baseball player and a hard-drinking umpire played by Nick Nolte.) The End of the Tour’s greatest strength comes in the attention Ponsoldt pays to the prickly relationship between these two battling Davids: the journalist trying to talk his way into the writer’s confidence, while the writer tries to use his linguistic gifts to hide in plain sight. It’s a not-quite-buddy movie that, far from making a travesty of Wallace’s work, so respects the work that the process of writing itself remains all but completely off-screen.
In one late scene in Wallace’s house in Bloomington, Lipsky, left by himself for a moment while his host scrapes ice off the car, ventures into the author’s darkened study. He’s been a shameless snoop everywhere else in the place: scribbled down the contents of the medicine cabinet, inquired about the meaning of the Alanis Morissette poster on the kitchen wall. (The answer: Wallace finds Morissette hot.) But in the place where the actual writing happens, the sanctum santorum, the reporter is too abashed even to turn on the light. He glimpses, in the darkness, the outline of a computer on a desk, then leaves without writing or dictating a word. Like anyone who loves an author’s work, whether the creator is still around to speak about it or not, Lipsky has no idea what goes on in that darkened room, and he’s not sure it’s possible—or desirable—to know.
*Correction, July 30, 2015: This article originally misstated that Infinite Jest was published a few months before the road trip depicted in the movie. It was published a few weeks before, in February 1996.