“Although of course you end up becoming yourself.”
What truth do we expect from a biopic? Is the ultimate goal an adherence to factual data, a simple regurgitation of signifiers indicating a person and their place in time? Or is there more vitality to be found in a representation of ideas, a foundation of thematic authenticity that brings to life the beliefs and conflicts of the subject? The End of the Tour, a film that takes only four days from the life of author David Foster Wallace, balances somewhere between the two. Much of the script comes directly from interview transcripts and audio recordings. Yet director James Ponsoldt reaches further into the intent of Wallace’s words and fills the camera frame with images and performances that highlight the fascinating nature of this quiet experience.
The End of the Tour finds David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a novelist himself, profiling Wallace (Jason Segel) for Rolling Stone on the final days of the Infinite Jest book tour. Immediately, the film’s central conflict is puckered through Lipsky’s mocking tone as he recites a glowing review of Jest that tiptoes around the honor of “voice of a generation”. Upon reading the book for himself, Lipsky decides to attempt an examination of Wallace, searching for elusive definitions of greatness and inspiration. What follows, as Ponsoldt lays out, instead peers at both men, tossing them together as they discover how their worldviews both scatter apart and crash together.
Innocuously, Wallace is first seen in his Bloomington, Illinois house corralling two mammoth black dogs. Segel captures here the hulking presence of Wallace, clearing mountains of snow and nearly his front door. All of the indications of the author are there, including the bandana and various tics that can be found in video of the actual man. Yet Segel attempts to gather a greater honesty about the writer as his brain pinballs from distressed to amused to hopeless. Every interaction between Wallace and Lipsky is layered with skepticism, at least from the latter’s side. But see Wallace when Lipsky offers a rare window into his own persona: a relaxed grin at the freedom of absorbing another’s life story. If the mind of a writer is constantly at work, then Segel does a tremendous job at capturing those gears, greased with curiosity and pained detachment.
As their conversations move from the topic of Alanis Morissette in Wallace’s living room to romantic partnership in a hotel room, Ponsoldt steadies the camera on the two actors’ faces. Their duality – large and small, depressed and neurotic – feeds into every discussion. When Lipsky reaches more directly to the point, Wallace closes off. But given the space to speak on the hypocrisy of American consumerism, he widens his eyes and wraps his body around the material. Segel moves, subtly, with cresting and waning of Wallace’s excitement. Eisenberg matches Segel, capturing yet another shade on the spectrum of “paranoid narcissist”. Here, he’s more giving than the Zuckerberg of The Social Network. A genuine curiosity underlies the hurt, and Eisenberg grows kinder eyes to match. The End of the Tour never gives either man more rope to pull, exploring both perspectives and coming forward with a generous understanding that there is no one way to live.
Luckily, Ponsoldt doesn’t rely on these performances for the stirring gut of his film. Instead, he manages to replicate the very ideas the men discuss within the frame. The Midwestern cold, its gentle melancholy influencing so much of Wallace’s perspective, is beautifully rendered through streams of sunlight towering over blankets of white. Using 35mm, Ponsoldt captures the mundane uncertainty of the 90’s, every shot seemingly coated in the glossy memories of “the age of the slacker”. Most of all, Ponsoldt grapples with Wallace’s fascination with the entertainment complex that informed Infinite Jest and many of Wallace’s other works. Shots of the writers driving near Wallace’s home reveals streets speckled with fast food joints and convenience stores. Ponsoldt’s camera keeps finding its way back to the food the characters eat, from half-finshed plates at IHOP to a packet of M&M’s from the hotel mini-bar. In Tour, Wallace says that his only addiction is television. That simultaneous need for and revulsion of the greasy burgers and corporate signage peppers the world that Ponsoldt creates, giving a greater weight to Wallace’s strained words.
Conflict arrives, but even the exterior motivations feed back into Wallace and Lipsky both having what the other wants. When the former sees the latter flirting with his old flame, he enters a sudden and menacing confrontation. But Ponsoldt hints the true motivation to be Wallace’s bewilderment at seeing Lipsky possibly throwing away his relationship back home. The End of the Tour presents, with ample evidence, Wallace as a figure who could never fill the holes of loneliness with the spackle of acclaim. Whether or not this is the true Wallace is uncertain. And though his writing, and these conversations taken from real life, offer a credible argument, that doesn’t seem to be Ponsoldt’s ultimate goal. Instead, the director takes the knowledge of Wallace’s beliefs and ideals and presents them in a moving and meditative masterpiece. There is no attempt here to answer the mystery of Wallace, but instead to utilize those questions to explore the brutal isolation of existence, the fraught relationships between creative types, and the way we as people build and tear down our idols at will. Near the conclusion of The End of the Tour, Lipsky receives a package from Wallace, hoping it will contain some grand solution to these existential quandaries. Instead, the box reveals nothing of significance, but instead a thoughtful gesture and short note. Wallace was simply a man, beneath everything else, which makes him more wonderful and more tragic all at once.