It begins with an ending. James Ponsoldt’s deeply felt The End of the Tour opens with a death – an expected one, at least to anyone familiar with the life of lauded author David Foster Wallace, the man at the center of the story, the man who has come to the end of another sort of tour as the opening credits tick by – as author David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) pounds away at a laptop, hard at work on something and oblivious to the thing that has just happened that will change all of the other things. Based on Lipsky’s memoir, Although Of Course You End Up Being Yourself and beautifully translated to the screen by screenwriter Donald Marguiles, The End of the Tour opens with Wallace’s death, announced to Lipsky in the most impersonal ways imaginable: with a phone call, and then a Google search.
Twelve years earlier, Lipsky went out on the road with Wallace for a Rolling Stone article that would became his memoir. At the time, Lipsky was a writer with two books (a short story collection and a novel, both of which were critically lauded, neither of which sold particularly well) and a promising gig at the magazine under his belt. Despite his own modest accomplishments, Lipsky couldn’t help but feel inferior to the newly launched star power of David Foster Wallace, whose Infinite Jest riveted the literary world just as Lipsky’s latest all but whimpered through it. Lipsky’s admiration and fear of Wallace were not unique to him or to other writers of his generation, but his reaction was – instead of running from Wallace, he embraced him, pitching a long-form profile of the writer to Rolling Stone and ultimately going out on the road with Wallace for the final five days of his latest book tour.
Wallace, notoriously reticent for attention, approved the interview, and Ponsoldt’s unexpectedly moving and richly rewarding film follows the duo as they make their way around the final leg of Wallace’s tour, as Lipsky attempts to turn what is essentially one long-running conversation into some kind of journalistic endeavor. Segel, in an unabashed star turn and major pronouncement of his dramatic talents, effectively translates Wallace’s written personality to the big screen, first through sardonic wit, eventually through sharply drawn pain and biting honesty. Segel isn’t doing some kind of basic and aping impersonation here (though he nails Wallace’s cadences and speech patterns in ways that are almost eerie), he simply embodies the role. It’s not mimicry, it’s impression, and the impression is a lasting one.
Lipsky, a canny reporter, never lets any detail slip through the cracks, tearing through Wallace’s house with his eyes, literally opening up his medicine cabinet and taking notes, observing Wallace’s reactions to events big and small (at one point, Eisenberg eyes up Segel for most of an in-theater viewing of Broken Arrow), and never letting his hand stray from his trusty recorder. Eisenberg, though not on the same plane as Segel (like his character, Segel is in a class of his own here), infuses Lipsky with a buzzy, nervous energy that pleasing bounces off of Wallace to great effect.
But although Lipsky is there to record and report on Wallace, he’s unable to conceal his admiration for the man, and his curiosity often feels like the product of both professional obligation and personal interest. The complexities of their burgeoning relationship – part friendship, part competition, part something else entirely – are expertly crafted, and Ponsoldt (who, really, just keeps getting better and better with each new film) and his two stars never push the material into overwrought, messy territory, it’s just two guys – two very similar guys – jawing away at each other and finding common experience between them. The End of the Tour is a conversation film, a true two-hander, and an entirely unsentimental spin on the biopic.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so gorgeously, wholly effecting, such an unexpected tearjerker, such a gem. A low-grade melancholy runs through the entire feature, though it’s still entirely enjoyable – “a pleasant unpleasantness,” as one of Wallace’s former classmates describes him in the film – and satisfying in the way only the best stories can be.
The Upside: Segel’s unshowy and finely tuned performance; a lovely and melancholy tone that runs through the entire film; excellent soundtrack; sharply written; emotional and respectful without feeling saccharine or disingenuous.
The Downside: Eisenberg’s performance can’t quite match Segel’s work, a temporary dip in energy in the film’s middle act.
On the Side: Like Wallace at the time of their meeting, Lipsky is now a professor – he teaches in the creative writing to M.F.A. students at New York University.