It’s not likely The End of the Tour will cause a run on David Foster Wallace titles at the bookstore.
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There are two diverging frames of mind when it comes to The End of the Tour. On the one hand, it features a great performance from Jason Segel (The Muppets) as David Foster Wallace. On the other hand, at least as presented here, David is sincere, but slightly more pathetic than sympathetic.
David Foster Wallace was a literary sensation who quickly flamed out. His heavyweight (literally and figuratively) novel Infinite Jest — a multi-pound, 1,000-page tour de force — was published in 1996 and received over-the-moon favorable reviews. But Wallace was a troubled soul and he committed suicide in 2008, which is when The End of the Tour begins.
The movie is based on David Lipsky’s Rolling Stone interview with Wallace, which took place over several days as the book tour for Infinite Jest wound down. Lipsky went on to write his own book about the encounter, entitled Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Backing up from 2008 and returning to 1996, the movie becomes a bit of a character study and the kind of material that would work well as a two-man stage play. Here, Lipsky is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), whose performance is merely serviceable in comparison to Segel’s all-in embodiment of Wallace.
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Wallace was basically an average dude with an above-average talent. He had a couple dogs, he quit the bottle, but he still smoked and chowed down Pop-Tarts. He was also accused of having a heroin addiction and he apparently suffered from agoraphobia and was a little paranoid. At one point he was put on a suicide watch for 8 days.
“I know I’m hard to be around,” Wallace admitted. And part of that stemmed from his need for solitude while he wrote. But he also over analyzed and painted himself into one corner after another. Sure, he was a male with a pulse and he would’ve loved to trade off the attention of the book tour for some sex on the side. But then he’d be afraid of what that would look like. Was he taking advantage of the situation or was he being taken advantage of by women? Trying to distill everything to absolutes is a recipe for insanity. The guy apparently had no capacity to go with the flow and simply let things happen.
Maybe it’s a side effect of being overly observant of human nature, which in turn informed his writing. Wallace, at least as shown here, suffered from the kind of perpetual navel-gazing and self-awareness that inevitably leads to implosion.
He seems like he would’ve been a cool guy to hang out with, but only in small doses. Then it’d be time for the “pull your head out” chat.
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Wallace’s inner conflict with success is kind of like a rock band whining about becoming popular, as if the members got together, started playing music and released records, all with the deep, deep inner desire that their music doesn’t get heard. There’s the frame of mind that rails against commercialism and there’s the frame of mind that goes for the gusto and seeks world domination. Wallace leaned toward the former, but he no doubt didn’t mind tasting the latter.
It’s hard to believe Wallace when he says it wouldn’t bother him if Infinite Jest wasn’t well-received, even though he spent three years of his life writing it. Everybody has bills to pay and if you’re a writer, the intent is likely to write, be well reviewed, sell loads of books — and thereby earn a living.
Even with his annoyances, empathy for Wallace is easy enough. It’s touching and brutally honest to hear about the decompression after all the attention of the book tour ends, then returning to reality and a close-knit world in which he knows only 20 people. That’s real.
Nonetheless, the arthouse vibe of this — essentially — two-man play wears off as the tour grinds to an end. There’s nothing particularly profound here and there’s not enough fascination generated to spur people back into the bookstore or e-reader in search of Wallace’s works. That’s very likely not the result director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) had in mind.