The End of the Tour stands at existential edge

Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg engage in a cerebral sword fight that punctures ego and hits metaphysical bone in James Ponsoldt’s low-key snapshot of the late David Foster Wallace


The End of the Tour


Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Cusack

Directed by: James Ponsoldt

Running time: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk


When ordinary people take their own lives, we have a hard time understanding the self-inflicted tragedy, but when young, beautiful, famous people commit suicide, we’re absolutely baffled.


Why would anyone who is supposedly ‘living the dream’ end it all by choice? It’s such a dramatic refusal of everything our society holds dear, that it forces us to question our collective fantasies revolving around celebrity lifestyles and endlessly available sex.


After all, why would David Foster Wallace end his life at 46? He was tall, athletic, handsome and supremely talented. His novel Infinite Jest, published in 1996, was a New York Times bestseller and named one of the best books written in the English language by Time Magazine.


To an outside viewer, Wallace had it all, which is why The End of the Tour has such built-in curiosity value: We kind of want to know what happened to the one time “it-boy” of American lit.


Not really a biopic as much as a brief encounter with personality, The End of the Tour stars Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter who spent five days with Wallace at the end of the tour for Infinite Jest.


When Lipsky hears of Wallace’s suicide in the opening scene, he goes back to find the old cassette tapes he’d made of their time together – no doubt looking for the exact same thing we are: a clue, a hint, a sign of world-weariness that would suggest the end was nigh.


As the wheels of the tape recorder turn, time rewinds, and suddenly we’re alongside a young Lipsky, a newly published novelist in his own right, pitching his editors at the magazine.


He runs into some resistance, but with a little pressure and a whiff of elitism, our boy gets his wish and starts following Wallace around the frozen Midwest.


We may be imagining glitz and glamour, or some depressive version of Almost Famous, but the minute we arrive at Wallace’s bungalow sitting in the snow like a square hen, the shine shatters.


This doesn’t look like the romantic hideaway of a bestselling author. It looks like a meth house. But when Wallace emerges with his black lab and a goofy smile, we can feel the star power.


It’s an important, but rather subtle, piece of acting between the two leads as Eisenberg smiles awkwardly with reluctant admiration and Segel does his best to appropriate a faux Spicoli dude factor to appear more accessible.


Underneath the banter, we can tell both men are uncomfortable around each other. Lipsky is intimidated by Wallace’s frat boy exterior, and Wallace is highly suspicious of Lipsky’s agenda.


Underneath the banter, we can tell both men are uncomfortable around each other. Lipsky is intimidated by Wallace’s frat boy exterior, and Wallace is highly suspicious of Lipsky’s agenda.


The tension provides enough dramatic clay for director James Ponsoldt to work with as he uses the negative space between them to shape the stripped-down denouement.


At first, it’s a slow, slick glide up and down ugly the lumps of ego that define the core of each character, especially in relationship to one another, because Lipsky is also a novelist, and through his eyes, we can feel a quiet sense of resentment.


Lipsky’s envy leaks through every scene, and as unpleasant as it is to watch, Eisenberg does a nice job selling it with his articulate nerdiness, forever landing somewhere between Woody Allen and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. But he’s only half the battle in this wordy duel. Jason Segel is the one who had to find the grim magic that made Wallace who he was, while at the same time tearing down any semblance of romantic myth.


It’s not an easy task for the actor, and it certainly couldn’t have been easy for Wallace, who probably played out the same dialogue in his own head with his own skeptical inquisitor every single day of his life.


And because the dialogue we are hearing is mostly transcription of the actual exchanges, we actually do get some insight into the greater existential chasm separating the two men. Wallace is already on the other side of the great divide: A famous person, but one who has seen through the veil, and recognizes the emptiness around him as his own creation.


Segel plays him like Zarathustra in a doo-rag: A weary traveler with a godless message and a wicked sense of humour.


It doesn’t always land, and it’s not really supposed to because in the end, the movie is as much about façade as it is about reality. Neither character feels comfortable being himself, so they arrive at a consensual reality at safe distance, playing out a narrative between two characters.


Ponsoldt’s direction avoids the pitfalls of self-awareness and focuses on making it all look ordinary. From library talks to small town chauffeurs, we never get a sense of a big moment. It’s all just a blur of small-talk and cocktails and sometimes, a random moment of connection that makes the void feel less lonely.


It’s not a whole lot, but it makes The End of the Tour feel more like life than a movie, which means Ponsoldt gives us just about everything we need to understand the end of David Foster Wallace.


The End of the Tour opens August 28.





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The End of the Tour: James Ponsoldt directs Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky in this dramatic reconstruction of a five-day interview in 1996. Told through Lipsky’s envious eyes, we can feel an underlying sense of resentment and ego that forms the larger shape of the film as it probes the nature of creative genius, and it’s ironic ability to destroy the most gifted creators among us. 4/5 – Katherine Monk

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