A Movie Based on a Book Based on an Interview About a Book: James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour
I’ve never read Infinite Jest. Due to its half a million-plus word count, it’s probably safe to assume I’m not the only one. The seminal novel’s author, David Foster Wallace’s specter has grown not only for the suddenness of his death, but because many of us never got around to reading his book first. I have, however, for reasons I can’t explain, found myself reading the Infinite Jest Wikipedia page at least once a year since Wallace’s suicide in 2008. But, even though the word count isn’t unsubstantial, there’s something far more daunting about the book now: what great pain will there be to grapple with knowing that these are the words of a man who ultimately lost the battle with his demons?
So, I went into the new Wallace biopic looking for a quick, painless addendum to my Wikipedia-based relationship with Wallace. Director James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour does its fair amount of grappling, but struggles when it comes to introducing much new or profound about the man, or the now-famous Rolling Stone interview-slash-road trip, on which the script is based. There’s a great deal of humanity on display, and a lot of universal-sounding quotes and profundities—these are, after all, the true words of someone who was, by all accounts, a certifiable genius—but Ponsoldt seems reluctant to take risks that might elevate material.
Ponsoldt, most notable for his adaptation of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now—and for being one of the only directors to film a watchable teen sex scene—brings a much lighter touch to this material. So light, in fact, it’s hard to know where the tension is being applied. The two mail characters talk about their feelings, but rarely take a break to actually feel them. And Ponsoldt is so reluctant to settle on an emotional peak, that the weird, awkward energy between the two men feels like the only catalyst.
Jason Segal gives a highly nuanced performance as Wallace, a welcomed break from the sometimes-exhaustingly boyish desperation he often brings to his broad comedy roles. What Segal and Jessie Eisenberg—who plays journalist David Lipsky—seem to struggle with are the pure amount of cleaver-isms that have been put on each of their plates. For Eisenberg’s character, it only results in a mild amount of tongue-tying, but in the case of Segal’s Wallace, there’s not much screen time between speeches to get to know him.
For example, when the subject is first broached of Wallace’s stay in a suicide watch in his 20s, Segal offers a rapid-fire list of generally reasonable causes, but never pauses to let his body language tell the real story—the one that can’t be put into words, but we’re all in the theater to see. Added up, these small missed opportunities fail to present a dynamic or complex picture of the man, and so we must settle for a series of mildly interesting facts, such as his love for junk food, Alanis Morissette, and television. Or, the fact that he settled on the middle name Foster for his penname because his middle name is—you’re not gonna believe this—Foster.
The film seems far more occupied with Wallace’s meteoric celebrity rise, and various battles of ego played out with Eisenberg’s Lipsky (who is also an aspiring novelist). It’s again and again fascinated with Wallace’s normal house, normal car, and normal-guy persona, which can’t help but lead to Eisenberg’s character’s New York elitism brushing off on the narrative. From a number of different angles, the narrative continually asks: why would someone who becomes famous not change entirely over night, quit his job, and buy a Maserati? It wasn’t a very interesting question when it was being asked of Wallace in 1996, and if anything, it’s less interesting now.
I admit I went in with a whole host of unreasonable agendas, which all things considered, is the last thing any filmmaker would like any of its audience members do. I wanted to know what truth was so damning this man ultimately couldn’t face it another day. And the film seems preoccupied with this question too. The supporting players are asking it, the director is asking it, and even Segal seems to be asking it of his own character. In the end, like his Wikipedia page says, it was probably just a case of him going off his medication. Not very romantic—or literary.
But, it’s the fact that we never really get to know him beyond his quirky affectations—the long hair, the bandana—and little quirks that left me with an empty feeling. The film is about a journalist and an evasive interview subject, so maybe it’s appropriate that the film’s audience is outfoxed as Lipsky often is. It was the silences, the small gestures, the cracks in between in which I was hoping to be able to nail down Wallace, the man, the writer, the movie character—all three of them—and shout, “gotcha.”
In a lot of ways biopics are impossible tasks and it’s admirable for all involved to take this material on, and to do so with ample amounts of compassion and subtlety. What truths can we really know about someone like this, where his particular genius lies, or how this genius would drive him to the edges of insanity or worse? While The End of the Tour doesn’t feel like a watershed moment, maybe it’s best and most fitting purpose is to get us to go to our bookcases and pick up that book we’ve been too busy to read for the past 20 years.