There's a moment in David Foster Wallace's 1997 interview with Charlie Rose that has always stuck with me. He's talking about his history with depression and how that manifested after the fame and attention he received from his critically acclaimed, weighty novel Infinite Jest. In the interview, Wallace said something to the effect of, "I achieved everything I ever wanted and it didn't make me happy." That's the reality of a chronically depressed person in a nutshell, and the insatiable loneliness he's describing is in large part the subject of the film The End of the Tour.
When I heard about Wallace's suicide in 2008, I was about 200 pages deep into Infinite Jest and actively crushing on the author. In interviews I found him sexually attractive, vulnerable and eloquent. His death hit me with the dull pain of losing a friend before you've had the time to really get to know him.
Fans of Wallace are fierce, sentimental and protective of his likeness and might be suspicious of a film that so audaciously attempts to know and introduce him to the rest of the world. I hope to reassure you that director James Ponsoldt's adaptation of the memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky is a spirited, faithful and devastating portrait of an author on the brink of fame. It doesn't condescend or lie and it won't disappoint.
The film catalogs Rolling Stone journalist Lipsky while he accompanied Wallace on the final days of his 1996 book tour. It begins at the moment Lipsky learns of Wallace's suicide, and then flashes back to their road trip 12 years earlier when they were both around 34 and just starting their careers. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky with ambition and sincerity, portraying an author who seems fascinated, intimidated and probably was envious of his subject.
Donald Margulies' screenplay lingers primarily on the long, intricate conversations between Lipsky and Wallace, but not just that. It captures the awkwardness of two authors meeting for the first time, the cautious friendship that emerges and the natural rivalry inevitable between two straight men with overlapping talents. Wallace finds himself so humble and acutely self-aware that it circles back around to bravado and arrogance, and that cycle leaves him feeling suffocated and exhausted. He wants to sleep with women on his tour, for example, but he's shy and it's weird. When Lipsky challenges him on what he perceives as Wallace's affected modesty, he's making a good point, and the fight feels awkward and unresolved, same as life.
I was skeptical of Jason Segel as Wallace at first, for admittedly shallow reasons: I think the real man is better looking than the actor, but that turned out not to matter. Segel embodies Wallace so thoroughly that his and Eisenberg's scenes feel more than anything like a documentary with impossibly intimate access.
For me, Wallace's death hangs like a tapestry in the background of every scene, but I have to confess that I can't speak objectively on the subject, because I lost my oldest friend to suicide around three weeks ago. My friend wasn't an author, although he was eloquent and good at writing. In Segel's voice, I recognized the muffled pain that depressed people work so hard to suppress. Like every other character in this cursed movie, my friend is also named David, and not to lay it on too thickly, but it's true, I'm writing this review on what would have been my David's 34th birthday.
All of us are fighting internal battles the rest of the world can never understand. In my experience, movies help. The End of the Tour is an honest, intelligent picture about two smart men in a conversation we are lucky to overhear.
The End of the Tour opens at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 28.