The End of the Tour works so well because it’s far too intelligent to hypothesize about why David Foster Wallace committed suicide. It doesn’t sugarcoat his life, but it’s still a ton of fun. Thanks in large part to Jason Segel as Wallace, this is one of my favorite movies of all time.
In the late 90s it became a sort of literary handshake to be seen reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (or carrying it, as if you were reading it). Hailed as the book of a generation, Infinite Jest turned Wallace into an overnight rock star, to the point where Rolling Stone–a magazine that only profiled rock stars–decided to do an in-depth feature on Wallace at the tail end of his Infinite Jest book tour.
David Lipsky, a young writer for Rolling Stone, spent five days with Wallace with his recorder on almost the entire time. As it turned out, Rolling Stone never printed the interview, but two years after Wallace’s death in 2008, Lipsky compiled the almost complete transcript of his road trip with Wallace into the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Lipsky’s five days on tour with Wallace, and the transcripts from his book, were the basis for The End of the Tour.
The movie shows Wallace both enamored and mortified with his burgeoning stardom, as he became a piece of the popular culture he both loathed and obsessed over (we see him binge-watching TV 15 years before Netflix made it socially acceptable). Segel’s Wallace is quirky, occasionally awkward, but ultimately winning. And yet he’s every bit the troubled artist who killed himself 12 years after Infinite Jest‘s release.
This is no biopic, though. This is a genuine slice of life. Five days, with little background before and no foreshadowing as to what came after. Lipsky, and screenwriter Donald Margulies, were sharp enough to realize that concentrating on this key time in Wallace’s life gives us all we need to understand him as a person, but not quite enough to stop asking questions.
Whether you have a copy of Infinite Jest that never leaves your nightstand (20-something guys, I’m looking at you) or you’ve never read a word of Wallace, it doesn’t matter. This is an incredibly accessible film that communicates Wallace’s brilliance clearly and concisely. You get him, which is all I asked for when I walked into that theatre. And ultimately, this is just a cool road movie, a two-actor play, a battle between a writer who seemingly has everything and wants something else, and writer who wants precisely what the first one has already.
What I find most fascinating about Wallace was how much he “treasures his regular guy-ness.” This is a certifiable genius. A member of the intellectual 0.0001%. And yet he was such a dude. He literally lived in Normal, Illinois. He sold millions and lived in a modest house, feared his celebrity more than anything, and spent his weekends dancing at community church socials.
But the world wanted more from him–so did Lipsky–more than he could give. This push and pull is the heart of the film, and it’s what makes it such an unexpectedly gripping movie (it is, quite literally, two hours of two guys talking to each other).
Watch the movie. Read some Wallace. But do it slowly.
That shit is hard.