I had the really interesting experience of literally finishing the book this movie is based on on the bus ride to the theater. And, well, the book was better, but only because it feels more complete. (And there’s a lot more book nerd shop talk about line editing and the ethics of accepting large advances that was fascinating to me, but might not be very cinematic.)
A little background, The End of the Tour, is based on the transcripts of a five-day interview that the journalist and novelist David Lipsky (played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg) conducted with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. The article was meant for Rolling Stone, but was never published, and after Wallace’s death in 2008, Lipsky edited it together into a book length piece (with the wonderfully long title of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – which is a Wallace line about the futility of parents trying to train their children). The posthumous nature of the project (and of the film) means that you read Wallace’s words, especially about his depression and his fears for the future, through the lens of knowing what will come for him. (As Lipsky writes in his preface, “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity. Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.”) But the best bits of the book are where the two guys aren’t trying to craft anything at all, but just like arguing over whose expense account should cover the bill at Denny’s. Because it’s easy to make Wallace, especially posthumously (and especially in light of his sage wisdom in This Is Water) into some sort of prophetic voice, but really he was an incredibly smart dude who liked to go dancing at the Baptist Church in Bloomington, IL and loved his dogs. (His sister said to Lipsky that her biggest question after her brother’s death was “Will he be remembered as a real, living person?” I think the book helps accomplish that.)
But, let’s be real, not a lot of people are going to spend three days reading a 300 page interview, and that’s part of why adaptations are made (I’m sure Wallace would have a lot of thoughts on that, but I won’t pretend to know what they would be.) So, I’ll move on to my thoughts about the film.
First: I love the director James Ponsoldt, who was actually the inspiration to start this Six Degrees series (because I saw Smashed and The Spectacular Now within days of each other a couple of years ago). This movie feels like him; it’s quiet, relationship focused, and lovely.
Second: The acting is nearly perfect. Eisenberg was less twitchy than I was expecting, but also not as cold as he was in The Social Network, and other than a quibble I had with the script (I’ll get to that in a bit) I found his manner matched the Lipsky I found in the book. Jason Segel deserves any and all hype he’s receiving for this role. I’ve always found him charming, but the vulnerability and mental exhaustion he exudes here is heartbreakingly great. He also manages to capture Wallace’s quiet goofiness without ever feeling like an impression, which is a feat.
I kept thinking the whole time about the changes from the book (inevitable given the closeness of the two experiences for me), but they flipped the order of some conversations from the end of the trip to the beginning (and vice versa), which, I found, didn’t make as much emotional sense. I had a hard time buying that Wallace would just open up right away about how much he used to drink, for instance, when the addiction angle is clearly troubling to him at the end of the film. I’m not sure if I would have even noticed this if I hadn’t loved the rhythm of the book so much, but it was bit jarring.
I was also left with a big question about Lipsky. (Both the book and film gave me a good sense of Wallace, and I almost feel ready to attempt Infinite Jest, but probably not until I’m done with school.) But, in the book there are all of these [Breaks] that indicate when the recorder was turned off. The film fills these in with some personal tensions between the two men (and frankly Lipsky doesn’t come off very well) and I wondered how much of that was invented by the screenwriter Donald Margulies and how much of it was Lipsky owning up to what he had left out of the book. (Which would be fine, the book isn’t a memoir, it’s explicitly not about Lipsky in the way the film is.) I guess I’m just curious what the filmmakers thought they had to add to make this portrait a story.
I’m tempted to use Ponsoldt to start another chain, but I sort of think that would cheating, and I really want to see Ricki and the Flash, which stars Mamie Gummer, who plays Wallace’s friend whom they visit in Minneapolis and so, random as it may seem that is what I am going to do.