THE END OF THE TOUR (2015)
Directed by James Ponsoldt
A24 Films, 106 minutes, R (for language)
* * *
What do we do about Kurt Cobain Disease—that dreaded malady that rears its head when society anoints a new celebrity who’d rather be dead than accept such an accolade? The End of the Tour probes turns its gaze to writer David Foster Wallace, whose 1996 novel Infinite Jest made him into the literary equivalent of a rock star. Wallace was declared a “genius” and a flesh-and-blood avatar of the postmodern novel. Was he? Confession time: I never made it through Infinite Jest, a 1,079-page dystopian tome (with footnotes) that’s (sort of) about a tennis academy, depression, obsession, substance abuse, and mass culture without really being about any of those things per se. Wallace resisted the genius label, but does it really matter what any one of us thinks? I recall Paul Simon’s line in “The Boy in the Bubble”: It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts/Medicine is magical and magical is art.”
The End of the Tour follows Wallace (Jason Segel) from his home in Bloomington, Indiana—he was an English/writing professor at the University of Indiana—to Minneapolis/St. Paul, the last stops on the Infinite Jest promo trail. His companion was New York-based Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), an erstwhile fiction scribbler in his own right, who wheedled permission to shadow Wallace on the tour. Lipsky, whose memoir is the basis for the script, approaches Wallace through a combination of New York arrogance and envy. He can’t imagine that such a genius can be holed up in a backwater like Bloomington (apparently unaware that the university has over 40,000 students). In his heart of hearts, though, he’d like to be Wallace. Or at least the Wallace he imagines before he arrives in the frozen winter prairie and encounters a person who confounds his expectations.
Wallace, as it turns out, is much better at relating to his dogs than other human beings. He can converse on everything, but takes nothing all that seriously—least of all himself. He is amazingly lucid and profound one moment, distracted and disinterested the next. As Lipsky tries to pry open Wallace’s soul, he keeps running into walls. It’s not that Wallace is secretive—more that he finds himself a dull subject, and absolutely nothing bores him more than the legends gathering around himself. His past mirrors the randomness of his present: a nondescript ranch house haphazardly furnished/maintained and odorized by dog pee, a stubbly face and long hair framed by an ever-present bandanna, and a Zen-like explanation that all of it simply is and has no deeper significance. In psychological terms, Wallace occupies the recluse end of the sociopath scale. This makes him a hard read for Lipsky, who is a piece of work in his own right—obsessed, envious, ambitious, vain, and trending toward amorality.
At its best moments, The End of the Tour is a pas de deux between two individuals whose natural proclivities would hurl them in different directions. Jason Segel is very good as Wallace, and there are nice cameo roles for (the always delightful) Joan Cusak and Mamie Gummer. Eisenberg plays Lipsky in a manner that makes him very hard to like. I suppose we can see him as a dogged reporter, but he comes off more as a stalker/creep.
So be it. It’s much harder, though, to overlook some of the film’s sugarcoating. Its most honest moments come when Wallace grows annoyed with attempts to put any reading on his flaws other than the fact that he has struggled through periods of deep depression. It stretches the record, though, when the script has him admit to no addiction other than to television. There is also an overall patina of Wallace as Misunderstood Genius, the likes of which he himself rejected. He wasn’t just misunderstood; the man was damaged goods. We’re talking substance addiction, electro shock therapy, sleep-with-your-students, stalk women, impulsive violence, hang-yourself-at-age-46 damaged. Was he also a genius? Perhaps. That is an externally conferred status, something whose workings both Wallace and Cobain tragically misunderstood.