“I want precisely what he has already.”
In 2005, the late David Foster Wallace famously delivered the commencement speech for Kenyon College titled This Is Water. I personally encourage any and all to watch the full speech, but if you want a shorthand version with the same punch, then give this 9 minute video a whirl. The main takeaway, in his words, is that “banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.” And more importantly, that the act of choosing is the most powerful tool we have. In a vacuum, that is The End of the Tour, a heartbreaking investigation into the life of a clearly brilliant, even genius man, grappling with his own demons while the rest of us sit back and get punched in the face with his simple yet brutal observations on life, death, and existence.
The film is talky and congenial and understated, yet it’s hard to watch and not literally feel enlightened. With most of the dialogue pulled directly from Foster himself, it works as windshield wipers for our minds, clearing the lens of our lives as we plow forwards in the everyday rat race. The End of the Tour can be lighthearted and funny, but knowing the eventual outcome of our tragic heroic figure makes the movie even more engaging and ultimately upsetting. It’s no mystery that Wallace, perhaps the most important and influential figure in modern American literature, battled depression, with his suicide by hanging occurring in 2008 at the age of 46. We know this ahead of time, and flash back to Wallace at his best, or perhaps not. Either way, I implore you to choose to see this film.
Based on Rolling Stone editor David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the story recounts a five-day period spent with Lipsky and Wallace on the tail end of his book tour for the grandiose thousand pager Infinite Jest. Pretty simply, it’s a road movie, a journey the characters take in their lives and the shared voyage we experience watching them. Jesse Eisenberg, who is quickly becoming one of the more subtly nuanced actors working today despite common typecast, fills the role of Lipsky. The part doesn’t call for much, but Eisenberg is still able to make us question the pure journalistic actions offset by his eventual respect for Wallace as a person. He jots down every tchotchke detail behind the scenes, sometimes even lies, yet there is an apparent personal connection to the writer. It most certainly is one of mixed emotions, consisting chiefly of admiration and idolatry. Eisenberg plays point guard for most of the film, dishing out opportunities for Jason Segel to take, and succeed, in what is by far the best role of his career.
Segel is a very, very funny man, and so are parts of this film. However, unlike the rest of his nice-guy softy roles spent bumbling through romantic comedies, he’s really given his first opportunity to put on a performance since he fell into the first subcategory of the cult series Freaks and Geeks. It’s not straight up mimicry or an impersonation. He has the nervous ticks, the walk, and the speech cadence down perfectly, all while managing to make this about the person he is playing and not the way he does it. Segel’s bravado and awards worthy performance is a gateway into one of the most unique minds of the 21st century. We believe that David Foster Wallace behaved this way because Segel himself is so believable, so transitory and baffling all at once. He speaks so clearly and intelligently while making his engrossing takes on existentialism seem like mere prattle compared to the traffic jam of ideas and thoughts and worries backed up in his head. By film’s end we feel horrible for this man and his inability to stop worrying or even thinking for a half second. Segel takes us there, and it’s a slow-burning drive of reflection on unflinchingly frank and honest personal and public examinations. It’s one of the best performances you will see all year.
The directing by James Ponsoldt is nothing short of blissful movie magic. Many pundits have reduced his stellar filmography to films based on alcoholism, which to their credit is a major component of his work. His first feature Off the Black shows Nick Nolte as a boozing umpire familiar with the curveballs of life. Smashed is a portrayal of a relationship built upon negative vices. And The Spectacular Now, for my money not only one of the best films released this decade, but that I have ever seen, deals with a lonely young man finding comfort from the bottle. But that’s neither the message or the symbolism of those films, nor this one. James Ponsoldt is an expert at depicting human exploration, and like the rest of his work, gently handles the broader contextualization of coping mechanisms. Before they were represented through drinking, and here it’s through writing (which I must concur works rather well). The End of the Tour is not meant to be mourned or to rekindle the genius that is/was David Foster Wallace. It is an appreciation of his mind, his heart, and his understanding of humanity’s flaws and strengths. The film has few weak spots, and despite the eventual calamity, is an outpouring of respect and hope.
“I’m not so sure you want to be me.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5