A CERTAIN SEGMENT of the reading population simply shouldn't see The End of the Tour: David Foster Wallace diehards, the ones who've read Infinite Jest not just once but several times; who've internalized those famously complex sentences and who've waded through that final, unfinished novel about tax codes. When a writer means as much to you as Wallace means to so many, you really don't need to see him impersonated onscreen by that dude whose dick you saw in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
For the rest of us, though—the more moderate fans who marvel at Wallace's essays and short stories, even as our copies of Infinite Jest remain permanently dog-eared at pg. 281—there's much to appreciate about The End of the Tour.
Directed by James Ponsoldt, with dialogue drawn heavily from taped interviews with Wallace, The End of the Tour is based on the five days in 1996 that writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) trailed Wallace (Jason Segel) for a Rolling Stone article. The End of the Tour isn't a Wallace biopic; if anything, it's a character study of Lipsky as he grapples with his own ambition and envy in the face of a far, far more talented writer.
As The End of the Tour begins, Wallace has just published Infinite Jest, which is already being recognized as a masterpiece; Lipsky's own first novel, The Art Fair, has been met with muted acclaim. (We're treated to two scenes of book readings: Wallace, in front of a packed, eager house, and Lipsky, reading to a sparse crowd whose most enthusiastic member is his girlfriend.) Driven by mingled admiration and resentment, Lipsky pitches a profile on Wallace to Rolling Stone, then flies to Bloomington, Illinois, to accompany Wallace on the final days of his Infinite Jest book tour. The story is told from Lipsky's perspective: He meets Wallace's dogs, sleeps in Wallace's guest room, rifles through Wallace's medicine cabinet, and watches longingly as Wallace receives the kind of acclaim that he himself desires.
Fittingly, much of the dialogue between the men is self-reflexive, picking apart the very nature of their interactions. Wallace finds himself trying to manipulate Lipsky's perception of him in order to shape the article, and then excoriates himself for doing so; Lipsky, meanwhile, is slow to realize that as much as he wants to measure up to Wallace, he's comparing himself to someone who's using a different standard entirely.
The End of the Tour is at its most interesting when Lipsky is at his worst. Eisenberg is an actor who has completely abandoned "likeability" as a performance metric. Try as Lipsky might to be a worldly, confident emissary of the New York literary establishment, Eisenberg's damp lips and glassy, hungry bird eyes reveal the full extent of his character's longing for what Wallace has. Segel's workhorse performance mutes Wallace's famous snappishness into something more like exasperation—he's still clearly the smartest guy in the room, but he's more bemused about it than prickly.
This is a movie about two writers navigating the strange power dynamic that comes when one person is charged with representing another on the page—a dynamic that's further complicated when the profilee is orders of magnitude smarter than the profiler, and both of them know it. It's worthwhile—if you can—to untangle the real David Foster Wallace from this cinematic one, and instead appreciate The End of the Tour as a case study of ambition and ego. It's also understandable why many Wallace fans just won't want to.