'The End of the Tour' Offers A Hint Of David Foster Wallace's Inner Struggle
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "The End Of The Tour" is adapted from a series of interviews between the novelist David Foster Wallace and a Rolling Stone reporter after the publication of Wallace's 1996 novel, "Infinite Jest," the book that made him a literary celebrity. Twelve years later, Wallace killed himself. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of "The End Of The Tour."
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The tour in "The End Of The Tour" is based on David Foster Wallace's 1996 multi-city book promotion for his epic novel, "Infinite Jest." And its end is the Midwest where Wallace, played by Jason Segel, is accompanied by Rolling Stone magazine writer David Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who's writing a profile of him. The actual profile was never finished, but after Wallace's 2008 suicide, Lipsky transcribed his interviews and published a book with the Wallace-like title, "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself." I don't think the book is especially revelatory. Wallace is extremely self-conscious, and many of Lipsky's questions center on what it feels like to be a hot writer instead of the peculiar scramble of Wallace's book, "Infinite Jest." But it's good enough to be the basis for a very good movie. "The End Of The Tour" is essentially a two-character piece - a sort of "My Dinner With Andre" on the road that evokes the fuzziness of Wallace's emotional life and his discomfort with being interviewed. Jason Segel, with long messy hair and the trademark Wallace bandana, makes Wallace's self-consciousness expressive, even eloquent. Much of his writing centers on how people struggle to present themselves. And in a diner opposite Lipsky, Wallace raises the whole meta-question of what is an interview?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE END OF THE TOUR")
JASON SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) You know what I would love to do, man? I would love to do a profile on one of you guys who's doing a profile on me.
JESSE EISENBERG: (As David Lipsky) That is interesting.
SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) Is that too pomo (ph) and cute? I don't know.
EISENBERG: (As David Lipsky) Maybe for Rolling Stone but...
SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) It would be interesting though.
EISENBERG: (As David Lipsky) You think?
SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) I'm sorry, man.
EISENBERG: (As David Lipsky) What's wrong?
SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) It's just you're going to go back to New York and, like, sit at your desk and shape this thing however you want. And that, I mean, to me, it's just extremely disturbing.
EISENBERG: (As David Lipsky) Why is it disturbing?
SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) 'Cause I think I would like to shape the impression of me that's coming across.
EISENBERG: (As David Lipsky) I see. I understand that.
SEGEL: (As David Foster Wallace) I don't even know if I like you yet - so nervous about whether you like me.
EDELSTEIN: There it is; Wallace studies Lipsky studying Wallace while Lipsky labors to find his story. Does all this sound too pointy-headed? "The End Of The Tour" doesn't play that way. Screenwriter Donald Margulies is an accomplished playwright, and he's alert to every subtle, awkward negotiation for power. The director, James Ponsoldt, keeps the action loosely framed. These guys aren't pretending to hang out. But there's no dead air, everything is fraught. Wallace tells Lipsky he doesn't want to be seen as the kind of person who'd want to be in Rolling Stone. He's afraid of celebrity, of becoming a cog in a culture that in "Infinite Jest" he likens to a drug. But he also says he wants it to be easier to go home with women after his book readings. He wants it, and he doesn't. He's self-deprecating as a way of hiding his competitiveness. Jesse Eisenberg, by contrast, puts Lipsky's competitiveness on the surface. When he interviewed Wallace, Lipsky had just published a novel to resounding silence. And Eisenberg shows him oscillating between jealousy of Wallace's sudden fame and a desire to live vicariously through it. Their contest comes to a head when they meet up at the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis with two female friends of Wallace's played by Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner. In a series of exquisitely orchestrated scenes, Wallace picks up on Lipsky's subtle sexual moves on Sumner and begins to seethe. Not all of "The End Of The Tour" is so understated. The movie cooks up a bogus moral issue - will Lipsky follow the crude orders of his crude editor and ask Wallace if he'd been addicted to heroin? It's a nonstarter. And the pacing falters in later scenes when Lipsky and Wallace are quietly enraged at each other. But even at its draggiest, the film makes you feel lucky to be in the same room as David Foster Wallace. And I was once at his first big event in 1996 at a packed East Village bar called KGB. He read two sections of "Infinite Jest" in an even, deadpan meter that made every absurdity sound utterly logical. I wish "The End Of The Tour" gave a sense of what it was like to hear Wallace read. The filmmakers cutaway whenever he's about to. I know that prose can seem static and overly literary on screen. But I think Jason Segel could have used it as a springboard into the labyrinth of Wallace's mind. Why not show David Foster Wallace in the one arena in which he could be perfectly understood?
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like the ones with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, comics Bobcat Goldthwait and Barry Crimmins, actor Ian McKellen and Teresa Ann Miller who trains dogs for movies and TV shows, check out our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.