A Little More Consideration: James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour
This Is Where We Came In
The character of David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour is an overpowering presence. Director James Ponsoldt is a more than capable director, yet here his direction comes off as uneven, perhaps because of the charismatic enormity of Wallace as both a character and a thinker. As demonstrated in the former’s last masterpiece The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt has a filmic eye, yet The End of the Tour never seems to concern itself with cinematic aspects of the film, more content to recycle the standard over-the-shoulder dichotomy that most contemporary films have been poisoned by, unlike the wonderful and more expressive combination of two-shots and tracking shots that filled Spectacular Now and did well to increase the emotional poignancy.
Still, that doesn’t seem to matter here, because the material for The End of the Tour, adapted from the David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) book-cum-transcript And of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, is so rich, so genuinely intelligent, and so engaging. The screenplay, by Donald Margulies, is essentially a manipulation of actual conversation/Rolling Stone interview that occurred between Lipsky and the postmodern legend David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the end of his book tour promoting Infinite Jest. And the brilliance of Wallace shines through, both to the aid and detriment of the film.
It shines through, mostly, because of Jason Segel’s subdued yet committed performance. I have seen Wallace in interviews before, and Segel himself, with his long hair, bandana and hulking frame, is as close to Wallace as one could ask for; but it’s the idiosyncrasies and verbal rhythm – very true to Wallace’s own – that put him in the same position as, say, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln. One feels as if watching Wallace in the flesh. I recall in an interview between Wallace and Charlie Rose from the late 90s: Wallace says something to Rose (I think about David Lynch), and he seems to cringe at himself afterwards. In the film, Segel as Wallace, being a little shy and awkward in a very Wallace fashion, walks away after first meeting Lipsky and does something very similar to that cringe. This is where Ponsoldt demonstrates his virtuosity for directing: unlike in Moneyball, for example, where director Benedict Miller highlights every one of Brad Pitt’s nuances, making them seem more contrived than genuine, Ponsoldt never uses his camera to point anything out. He puts it on camera, and lets us see it, and it leaves Segel all the stronger for it.
Ponsoldt obviously put a lot of care into Segel’s portrayal, as one couldn’t help but doing, but Eisenberg is left playing Eisenberg, so to speak. Normally, there’s no issue in that – David Lipsky, as the film has it, is a nice guy, but has to play the rat in order to get a good interview for Rolling Stone. But Eisenberg, whose best performance in The Social Network lets everyone know that he was born to play this role, seems distinctly uncomfortable next to Wallace at some points. Richard Brody, in The New Yorker, makes a point of this and it is one of his larger criticisms of the film, but I, in perhaps a misguided attempt to save face for Ponsoldt and Eisenberg, can’t help but wonder if they have a more interesting, postmodern motive in mind. Perhaps a reminder to the audience of the artifice of cinema? Having this in mind when watching the film keeps the viewer at a safe, self-conscious distance, which seems to be what Wallace, intellectually, would have wanted.
Regrettably this mannered control over artifice is bludgeoned back due to the screenplay’s sloppy – perhaps impossible – handling of conflict in the film. Lipsky and Wallace are portrayed as having a sort of duality, both being writers, both being self-conscious, but the former having yet to achieve major success, unlike the latter, who is in the midst of it. But, the outlets for it – confrontations due to jealousy, while never reaching the levels of maudlin melodrama, come off as disingenuously contrived, especially when surrounded by such rich manna for thought. It’s less sloppiness than impossibility – this isn’t a film for that kind of conflict.
David Foster Wallace is a writer baptized in the unclean waters of postmodernism. His work descends from Pynchon, DeLillo – one can even connect him back to Joyce. His Infinite Jest has been grouped among the 20th century encyclopedic novels like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow; he demonstrates erudition and ambition in smaller works, which show no less an attempt at originality, no matter how little we all believe in it. His essay collections, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster are filled with intelligent, aspiring prose and meditations on concepts all around us, showing for us the mundanity of postmodern thought.
The End of the Tour reflects that very thing, that extremity of thought and consideration. Wallace and Lipsky find themselves in conversations about Alanis Morissette, fast-food, and even conversation itself and this is where we most see the genius of the man. We see the cerebral reshaping of the quotidian objects and actions of our lives for metaphysical ends. Pleasure, to Wallace, was good, but also destructive. Television, a monolith of mindless pleasures, is repeatedly signified by Wallace, in the film and in his own work, not just as a form of medication, but as an addictive force. When Segel as Wallace sits in front of the TV, a look on his face of constant orgasm prepares us for his later confession to Lipsky; Lipsky presses Wallace about a rumored heroin addiction, and Wallace, in a burst of confiding rage says that he was addicted to television when younger. It is doubtful that most of us would ever suggest something like that: Wallace gave his existence the consideration that something as slight as television could be addictive, and could be degrading his existence.
Other reviewers have posited that the real, kitschy purpose of Tour is to show, “Hey, this genius is just like us!” but while I think that can be construed from the film, if only in the most literal of senses, what this conclusion ignores is what Wallace’s person, like a ghost haunting this film, is trying to tell us using the same means. How Wallace lived was like us: “us”, in the very sentimental regard, that we are all mass consumers trapped in existential sloth. But it means that we too, like him, have the potential for the expansive intellectual thought that he demonstrates, if only we tried. He is not like us – we are like him, if we gave a little more consideration.
And, unfortunately, while some of us would like Wallace to perhaps be superhuman, or at least a super human, he wasn’t. The film reminds us of his traumas, his horrors of depression and loneliness. Two people in conversation more effectively remind us of the struggle to communicate than two silent figures, and as The End of the Tour nears its end, no matter how close the two Davids have gotten, there is still the gap, the essential disconnect between the two. The title itself invokes apocalypse, and the film even begins with news of Wallace’s death. The only way for Lipsky, in the film, to cope with this sudden loss, it seems, is to reach back, and use the tape recorders to fashion a book, the written word, to recapture Wallace from the loneliness of death, and himself from the loneliness of life.
David Foster Wallace committed suicide. He succumbed to the oppressive wrath of depression; and that tragedy, referenced in the film and, in a sad, perverse way, responsible for the film, for the book it is based on, is most human. Jason Segel, in an interview, said, “I felt like when I read the script that the movie was an extension of the themes of “Infinite Jest.” It was echoing sentiments and ideas that David Foster Wallace was trying throughout his entire career to communicate.” David Foster Wallace’s fiction, his essays, his life – as this film shows it – and the film itself, seems dedicated most to the simple, sad fact that humans – us – are very fragile beings.