The End of the Tour observes the process of reverence, its reductions and lapses.
"The point is that I got reluctant to leave them alone for very long, and then after a while I got so I actually needed one or more dogs around in order to be comfortable enough to feel like working."
"Where'd you get this number?" Listening on a pay phone, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) looks genuinely stunned. "You'd do me a favor by losing it," adds the man he's about to meet face to face, the man who's the subject of his ambitious first feature for Rolling Stone magazine, the man who will introduce himself as Dave Wallace (Jason Segel).
That meeting occurs a few seconds later in The End of the Tour, a film recounting five days the writers spend together at the end of Wallace's book tour for Infinite Jest. They stand in Wallace's driveway in Bloomington, Illinois, attended by his two big bouncy dogs, galumphing into snow banks. Wallace reassures his visitor that his question was mostly a joke. Now Lipsky looks unconvinced.
The film goes on to follow their brief relationship, the script by Donald Margulies and based on Lipsky's memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. The Rolling Stone piece was never published, the book, based on the unused interview tapes, followed Wallace's 2008 suicide, and the movie has generated some controversy, much of it centered on the impossibility of doing justice to Wallace, as a personality, as an icon, as a singularly brilliant person.
Yet the movie does work toward addressing these concerns, using Lipsky's profound insecurities and vexing misunderstandings to situate viewers. Lipsky wants to know "what it's like to be the most talked about writer in the country," you know he's in trouble and also that this is the point, for you to know that.
This sort of po-mo circularity is, of course, apt in imagining Wallace -- or imagining Lipsky's imagining. "It's as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL," Lipsky says of his subject, not quite placing himself in the metaphor. Wallace agrees to the interview -- a point Lipsky makes whenever he feels resistance to an annoying question -- but his work and conversation reveal the inadequacy of such rituals.
Wallace seems to entertain Lipsky's efforts to share insights regarding celebrity, addiction and the odd perfections of Die Hard and The End of the Tour allows you to remain daunted by Wallace's genius while not asking you to sympathize too much with Lipsky's twitchy narcissism and frequent incomprehension. It's a movie about two writers with very different relationships to greatness, one covetous and the other disappointed. Lipsky believes the mythology that Wallace critiques in his book, that greatness is a thing to be achieved, a thing that can save you. Though he's read Wallace's book, its ruminations on pretty much exactly the complications of this experience, Lipsky doesn't get what Wallace is talking about.
The film makes clear that Lipsky's concern with his own part in the interview shapes any possible interaction. "Reading you is another way of meeting you," Lipsky essays, "Your work is so personal." Sitting across from Lipsky in a diner, Wallace nods at the fantasy. Watching Lispky fidget and project, you're increasingly aware of your own efforts to grasp a phrase or a moment, your own discomfort and wonder. Wallace looks large no matter where he appears, whether in the close spaces of his one-story home or as he looms against long stretches of highway glimpsed during transport to and from the reading in St. Paul, Minnesota. Lipsky, by contrast, looks small, his eyes darting and his shoulders hunched.
This isn't to say that The End of the Tour necessarily or only reveres Wallace. More often, it observes the process of reverence, its reductions and lapses. Wallace appears to put up with Lipsky, and so with you, alternately patient and apprehensive, eventually frustrated. The tour, the interview, the whole business, they're a life apart from the one Wallace might have or that you might see. Lipsky observes and probes, turns on his recorder, shows off. But he's lost.
Wallace is lost in his own way, of course, as the framing story of his suicide indicates. With Lipsky, he gestures toward his dogs more than once, as examples of companionship and loyalty, of joyful, earnest experience, a relationship that is, for him, is "easier" than with another person, a girlfriend, for instance. "You don't feel like you're hurting their feelings all the time," he says. And yet he looks out for them, asking Lipsky to leave his bedroom door open so they might wander the house freely at night. When they snuffle up to him, waking him, Lipsky pushes them away, unable to focus on anything but himself.
You see this edge of Lipsky's personality as well in his jittery relationship with his girlfriend back in New York (Anna Chulmsky) and an awkward few moments with Wallace's college girlfriend (Mickey Summer) in St. Paul. But his time with the dogs -- whether putting them off or enduring them in front of Wallace -- is inelegant in its own way, a particular sign of Lipsky's myopia.
When at last the film leaves him, when it imagines an experience for Wallace apart from Lipsky's interview, it's a simple-seeming pleasure, a dance at a local Baptist church. Rendered in slow motion, the dance suggests that Lipsky, so fixated on his project, on the answers, one the greatness, has missed what Wallace might have shared. But in its strained dreaminess, its very movie-ness, the dance also suggests that The End of the Tour has missed it, too.