Monday June 08, 2015
Movie Review: The End of the Tour (2015)
After the screening at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival there was a party at the Rainier Chapter House, a Mount Vernon replica home built in 1925, with open bar and hors d’oeuvres and Dilettante chocolates; and it was there, in this lovely building on a lovely evening surrounded by lovely and beautiful people, that I realized that I liked “The End of the Tour” more than everyone around me.
Then again, I’m about its perfect audience.
Like David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), I was a struggling writer in the 1990s who was envious of, and blown away by, the massive talent of David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, cast against type), who, in 1996, became a household name—in households that cared about serious literature anyway—with the publication of the 1,000-page novel, “Infinite Jest.” (He killed himself 12 years later.) In the film, Lipsky has just published his own novel, “The Art Fair,” which is greeted with the indifference we greet most things, when he hears about the accolades for “Jest” and dismisses them out of hand. Popular equals shitty, right? But his girlfriend, Sarah (Anna Chlumsky), suggests he actually read the book. He does, in silence, for about 10 seconds of screentime. Followed by a quiet, envious: “Shit.”
Like Lipsky, I’ve also interviewed a lot of people—although not for five days while living in their homes or going on tour with them. At best, I get a few hours in the office. But I know the tension between opening them up, wanting to be their friends, and potentially betraying them. “You’re not his best buddy,” Lipsky’s editor tells him, “you’re a reporter.”
Even an innocuous scene reminded me of me. At one point, Lipsky is sleeping in Wallace’s spare bedroom, with extra stacks of Wallace’s books towering over him and threatening to crush him, and I immediately flashed on one of the first short stories I ever wrote. A middle-aged writer, obsessed with great writers, with not adding litter to literature, is made small and insignificant by the huge book cases along one of the walls of his apartment, and winds up being crushed beneath one of them. (I'm not saying it was good.)
Plus half the movie takes place in Minneapolis, which is where I was born and raised.
So I get why “The End of the Tour” appeals to me more than most people. It’s “My Dinner with David Foster Wallace”: philosophical discussions about writing, fame, self-awareness and all that crap. It’s Salieri interviewing Mozart for Rolling Stone, and Salieri is my patron saint.
It’s about why we feel as empty as we do, having as much as we do.
People who do not love us but want our money
But I’m not unsympathetic to the complaints I heard at the Rainier Chapter House:
- It went on too long.
- Foster Wallace’s sudden jealousy by the refrigerator was odd.
- Eisenberg’s jittery acting is off-putting.
Once I began talking about the film, though, people invariably admitted, “Oh yeah, that part was great. Yeah, that, too.”
Example. Foster Wallace says this, or something similar, at one point:
As the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up [grows] ... at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.
This quote is taken from Lipsky’s book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace,” which is the basis for the movie. It’s an amazing quote. In 1996, I wasn’t even online; yet David Foster Wallace had already figured out what was already dangerous about it.
We get a lot of regular guy talk in the film: “Die Hard” (they both like), the empty calories of junk food (Wallace is an addict), the empty calories of television (ditto). Part of the tension is that Lipsky expects a genius while Wallace keeps retreating into regular guyness. Wallace has what Lipsky wants, is who Lipsky wants to be, but keeps denying that part of himself. Or so it seems to Lipsky.
Wallace is portrayed as a child of Holden Caulfield, worried about being a phony, and fame has simply added to that worry. The better-praised he is, the more he feels like a fraud. Popular equals shitty, right? He’s a hipster child of the ’70s, when you were never supposed to want fame. He’s a child of the Midwest, too, which is almost Amish in its reserve. You’re not supposed to stand out. All of these tensions make him a wreck. He’s trying to stay on the right path and it feels like success keeps pushing him off.
He’s weird about his privacy (“How did you get this number?” he asks when Lipsky first phones) and even weirder about women. In Minneapolis, Lipsky flirts subtly with Wallace’s college girlfriend, Betsy (Mickey Sumner), who flirts back less subtly, and that evening Wallace suddenly hijacks Lipsky’s conversation with Sarah for about 30 minutes. It’s payback. The next day, Lipsky gets Betsy’s email address, ostensibly for quotes about Wallace for the article, but Wallace sees something else, and demands Lipsky be a stand-up guy. Question: Is Wallace “too sensitive” here? Or is he simply “ultra sensitive”—picking up on what is happening all around us?
It’s the conversation, stupid
That moment leads to accusations, bad feelings, silent treatments, further arguments. It’s the story’s “arc” and it feels a little false. It feels like both men are expecting way too much of the other, that no one is being professional here. Is it even true? I can’t find anything about it in Lipsky’s book.
For me, “The End of the Tour,” written by Donald Marguiles (Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner with Friends”), and directed by James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”), would’ve been better served finding a subtler arc; or none at all and going the full “My Dinner with Andre.” Its conversations are good enough.
Ironically, the one conversation Wallace and Lipsky don’t have is about the death of serious literature as a force in the larger culture. Meaning both men were both worried about a kind of fame—Wallace having too much of it, Lipsky not enough—that was going away anyway.