My love of books predates my love of cinema, and something I have noticed is the almost complete lack of films about writers. We have so many biopics of musicians, athletes and performers, but very rarely films about authors, which is a shame, because in some ways, they are some of the most interesting people in the world. The End of the Tour takes a look at David Foster Wallace, the gentle but fiercely intelligent rock star of the 21st century literary generation. A film telling of the fascinating but tragic life of David Foster Wallace was important, just for the fact that he was one of the most important and innovative authors to ever live. The problem is that David Foster Wallace is an important figure in my life because I am so literary-inclined, but to many others, he is a complete unknown figure – which can be a benefit and a disadvantage for this film.
Every so often we get a transformative role, where an actor completely defies expectations and gives a performance previously not associated with that specific actor. Think of Steve Carell’s villainous turn in last year’s Foxcatcher. This year, something similar happened, where a comedic actor changed their entire persona for a role previously thought incapable for that actor. Before this film, Jason Segel was just a lumbering, slightly absent-minded comedic actor, but he managed to transform himself, not through any makeup or bodily changes, but through his personality and made us believe that the actor who fooled around in How I Met Your Mother and was in risque comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, was the defining literary voice of a generation. It is this kind of performance that comes around once in a lifetime, and Segel was one of the actors who grabbed the opportunity to do something smaller, but meaningful beyond words, which I think deserves immense praise.
Acting opposite Segel in The End of the Tour is Jesse Eisenberg, an actor whose career I can’t quite put my finger on right now. He seems like an actor who could star in big blockbuster films (and, as we already have seen, he’s done so, being recruited for the main villain Lex Luthor in the rapidly growing DC Cinematic Universe), but someone who does a lot better in independent films. He has struggled to alleviate his brand of awkward, nerdy outsider with a touch of snark that defined his breakthrough performance in The Social Network, but as he matures in his career, one can start to see the slightly adventurous tone he brings to his performances. He is an actor who knows his wheelhouse, and prefers to stay comfortably in that wheelhouse until he can find the performance that gives him a little bit more space to be different. Its not a problematic decision, but a safe and solid career choice, and it seems like he is not in dire need for film work right now, so I would say his career is going pretty well. His purpose in The End of the Tour is pretty much a thankless role – he plays David Lipsky, the journalist who goes out to interview David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his book tour. Eisenberg’s role pretty much only consists of him interviewing David Foster Wallace and setting up the questions to which Segel gives eloquent and philosophical responses, which is the core of this film. Eisenberg is a very good sport, because while he is technically the lead of the film (or at least, co-lead), he doesn’t get much of a character arc, and most of his performance is basically just serving as the introduction to Segel’s brilliant performance. Eisenberg does amazingly with the role, but there was no way it was going to be a scene-stealing performance, and it is clear that this film was more about its brilliant subject than the person conducting the interview. However, both Eisenberg and Segel have amazing chemistry which makes this film such a delight to watch.
I love smart cinema – I love cinema that gives you philosophical questions and hypothetical answers, while still remaining intelligent. The End of the Tour is not a very typical philosophical kind of film – it is about two young men, writers both of them, spending five days with each other, getting into the other’s head and trying to find the answers to life’s big questions in those few days. The End of the Tour is a remarkably dialogue-driven film, and while there are tons of films drowning in their verbosity, The End of the Tour never once feels pretentious or arrogant, and it keeps you absolutely captivated with its attention to bringing meaningful, but still relatable, situations into the conversation. In order to achieve this, a film needs to have a remarkable script. When almost the entirety of this film takes the form of conversation between two characters, the writing needs to be the most important aspect. Of course, when the script is written by Donald Margulies, a scorchingly important playwright, it is bound to be brilliant. The End of the Tour quite possibly has the best screenplay of the year, and with writing this great, the performances can easily take a backseat, but surprisingly, Segel and Eisenberg gave it their absolute everything, which makes this such a brilliant film.
Now I alluded to the fact that many people might not know the significance of David Foster Wallace, or why an entire film needs to be made about some writer not too many people know. Honestly, one can’t be blamed if they don’t know who he is, but if you do, you’ll know that he is one of the most complex and brilliant writers to ever live, who managed to lead a life so strangely uninteresting, it became absolutely fascinating. He was not your typical intellectual, with delusions of grandeur and a slight elistism in his step. Instead, he was just an ordinary man who just wrote what came to mind. He was fiercely intelligent and brilliantly perceptive of the human condition, which made him such a fascinating writer. If you want to have a transcendent experience, read his gargantuan novel Infinite Jest. The End of the Tour serves two great purposes – the first is to be a great love letter to David Foster Wallace, serving as a great piece of remembrance for his fans, and the other purpose is to introduce the uninitiated to the great writer. The only problem is that most people who don’t know who David Foster Wallace is probably won’t want to see this film, because when a film is pretty much two characters talking, many people actually want to know who one of those characters are. However, if, by some chance, someone does stumble into this film not knowing anything about the subject, then chances are they will be instantly captivated by the story and become a fan. This is the kind of film that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated and to have any legitimate standing in the film world, and it isn’t a film that will cruise into film history on its reputation, but rather on its brilliant content.
Unfortunately, David Foster Wallace’s fascinating story ended with a suicide in 2008, which frames this film and creates a sense of melancholy and sadness, especially when his suicide opens the film. The specter of death looms heavily throughout this film, but yet The End of the Tour is a strangely…happy film. It is not happy in the way that you will feel a sense of peace and bliss, but it is instead a nostalgic kind of happiness that reminds us of the days in our past where we experienced simple moments that became defining events of our lives. The washed-out, drifting film, often set to the brilliant score of Brian Eno’s music, creates a sense of melancholic happiness that will leave you with conflicting emotions, both happy and tragically sad, and will move you, maybe to tears even.
The End of the Tour is such a great film. It is smart and tells the story of a great author who deserves praise and acclaim, even more than he is receiving now. Most of all, The End of the Tour will move you more than many other films. It is small and meaningful, and contains some harsh truths about our reality. It may not appeal to everyone, but I implore everyone to give it a shot, because you’ll find it is a delightful, emotionally resonant drama about life, love and friendship, and most of all knowing what it means to be human, painfully human. It is a great film and I am very sure it will end up making my list of best of the year.
(Bonus points for the brilliant name-dropping of the favorite author of all time, Thomas Pynchon)