In the winter of 1996, Rolling Stone journalist and fledgling author David Lipsky spent four days with the renowned novelist David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his “Infinite Jest” book tour. Lipsky had just published a novel that didn’t get much attention, and he was both impressed with and intimidated by Wallace’s talent and fame. He wanted to know what it was like to be Wallace, to prove that he could keep up with him and deserved to be in the same room as him, and perhaps, he was hoping he’d find that Wallace wasn’t nearly as impressive as others made him out to be. James Ponsoldt’s gripping and challenging new film “The End of the Tour” takes place almost entirely during this time the two men spent together, reveling in their conversations, power plays, and occasionally, their connection.
When the two men first meet, there’s an obvious difference between them. Dressed in a long, navy, tailored wool coat, Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is clearly the hotshot from the city with an anxious demeanour, while Wallace (Jason Segel), in a bandana and loose-fitting sweats, is a laid back slob with an easy charm. Wallace meets Lipsky with his two rambunctious dogs, and is warm and welcoming, though Segel does tower over Eisenberg in the frame. Although Lipsky idolizes Wallace, he’s actually got the power in this situation: as the journalist on assignment, it’s his job to observe and pass judgement, to shape the narrative around Wallace in whatever way he wishes. It’s why Wallace appears nearly as nervous as Lipsky, if not by temperament than from the situation. They both desperately want to be liked.
Pretty much as soon as they enter Wallace’s house, Lipsky has switched on his tape recorder. Lipsky’s primary preoccupation is clear: what is it like to achieve the fame and acclaim that Wallace has? He doesn’t ask questions about Wallace’s craft, perhaps, to some degree, to Wallace’s relief, who hates fielding ones about how he gets his ideas. But Lipsky seems obsessed with imagining what it would be like to walk in Wallace’s shoes, specifically because of his success, rather than getting to know the man himself. He’s surprised by how seemingly modest, easygoing, and down-to-earth this legend is.
In the first half of the movie, Ponsoldt keeps us almost entirely in Lipsky’s head, shooting from his perspective. Rarely do we see a frame of Wallace that doesn’t have, at least in blurred outline, the back of Lipsky’s head in it, watching and observing. After having Wallace built up in our heads by Lipsky, who can’t stop talking about him to his girlfriend before he heads out on the trip, we’re as surprised as he is by how much we can’t help but like him. He’s witty and self-deprecating but also thoughtful and insightful, prone to wax on about various theories on the human condition.
Wallace even flatters Lipsky, admitting to his own nervousness about hoping Lipsky will like him, though perhaps showing his cards a bit by saying he hasn’t decided yet how he feels about him. Wallace is on edge about what Lipsky might decide to write, aware of how much power he holds, and this results in some gee gosh behaviour. He wonders aloud how Lipsky learned to interview people and whether he went to “interviewing school.” He gets excited about buying junk food at the gas station that will be charged to Lipsky’s expense account.
Conversation flows easily between them. Much of the film’s pleasure is in the intelligent dialogue, penned by Donald Marguiles, based on Lipsky’s transcriptions. Lipsky has filled his head with the kind of trivia Wallace doesn’t bother with, as if to compensate for something. Wallace is quick to point out with admiration when Lipsky makes a pithy remark, though so much of what Wallace says is full of insight. The conversation, necessarily, is about Wallace, because this is for a profile. Lipsky may share some personal information, usually to brag or tempt Wallace to ask him more, but it’s mostly about Wallace responding to prompts from Lipsky and the two of them bonding over shared attitudes and opinions.
Midway through the film, Wallace tells Lipsky, “This is nice, but it isn’t real.” What he means is that the relationship between journalist and subject involves a certain artifice. There’s a quick and easy intimacy that develops while on-the-record. Wallace even notes that he’s been more honest with Lipsky than he has, in some ways, with anyone else. But in the end, it’s not a relationship between equals. When the tape recorder turns off, they’re two strangers in a room together with no binding relationship. That strange mix of familiarity and alienation that comes with interviewing someone is something Terry Gross and Marc Maron have talked about at length. In Maron’s most frequent example, one minute, you’re having an intimate conversation with Jon Hamm, and the next, you’re wondering why he’s hanging out on your porch, hoping this stranger will leave soon.
That acknowledgement of the limbo in which their relationship exists is also when the film starts to shift more and more into Wallace’s perspective. Before the tour, Lipsky was tagging along as an observer. During the tour, he starts to fully infiltrate Wallace’s life and making him uncomfortable. In Minneapolis, they meet up with two of Wallace’s friends, Julie (Mamie Gummer) and his ex-girlfriend Betsy (Mickey Sumner). The women are smart and fun, and Lipsky treats the event as though he’s an invited guest, not an observer. When Lipsky hits on Betsy, under the guise of asking for her email for follow-up questions, the scene unfolds with Wallace in the far back corner of the frame, his eyes darting back and forth between the two with jealousy and frustration between the two. Wallace starts to feel that Lipsky is usurping his position, making friends with his friends, taking part in his rituals, and even copying his way of thinking and speaking.
Something breaks. As Lipsky’s confidence starts to build up, believing himself to be the equal of Wallace, he starts to figure out that he’s been under the same kind of scrutiny through which he’s put Wallace. They’re both sizing each other up. And Lipsky resents it. He resents what he considers Wallace’s false flattery, as it becomes clear later on that Wallace has plenty of experience writing the kind of story Lipsky is here to work on. That’s why Wallace is so afraid of the situation. It’s also why, toward the end of their time together, he’s very consciously working the tape recorder himself, deciding what will be on and off the record. Although the interview was ostensibly about Wallace, every question Lipsky asks, and how he asks it, has revealed something fundamental about his character, and Wallace has been paying close attention. It’s an occupational hazard, but Wallace also had started to like Lipsky, to enjoy his company, though perhaps not nearly as much as Lipsky enjoyed his.
Because this is a film about language and about two men in dialogue, it’s greatness could not have been achieved without the performances. What Segel does is subtle here, and you really have to watch to see how much he does with his reactions, which so often unfold near the back of the frame while the focus is on Lipsky. There’s a deep sadness and uncertainty behind what he says, and there’s a very careful modulation of how he tells his stories, where the pride is palpable even though it’s masked in self-deprecating humour. Siegel successfully delivers grand speeches at the speed of thought, but the meat of his performance is in the silent moments of reflection.
One of the most exciting young actors working today, Eisenberg continues to show his impressive range in “The End of The Tour”; his performance is so different from those in “The Double” and “Louder Than Bombs.” Though he has a reputation for playing hyper-intellectuals with nervous energy, and Lipsky fits that bill, there’s also deep emotional work being done here. Lipsky’s pride is in constant competition with his deep-seated insecurity, and we’re constantly watching Eisenberg react to what Wallace says, taking cues from him about how we should feel. In fact, Eisenberg is so compelling that it’s easy to get lost in his perspective, as I did the first time I saw the film, unable to fully see what Segel’s Wallace is feeling because so much of it goes over Lipsky’s head. It wasn’t until the second viewing that I could really appreciate just how much Segel is communicating that Eisenberg’s Lipsky is willfully ignoring, to his own detriment.
Although Wallace gets more and more monologues as the film goes on, and his perspective becomes increasingly prioritized, Ponsoldt still keeps him at a distance. We get to watch Lipsky alone, reflecting on what has transpired between the two, but we’re never privy to anything that happens to Wallace when Lipsky isn’t there. The sheer amount of time they spend together forces the exchange of intimacies and the discussion of minutiae. But, in the end, they aren’t really friends. When together, their story largely unfolds in alternating close-ups, only rarely sharing the frame.
There’s one exception near the end of the interview. The two men go for a walk together on the frozen lake nearby before sharing one last meal. It unfolds in the two shot we sense they’d both been hoping for, to some degree, throughout the film. Jakob Ihre’s (“Oslo August 31st, “Louder Than Bombs”) cinematography, which was so dominated by the icy blues and grey of winter for most of the film, is unquestionably romantic here. There’s so much beauty in this vista full of snow. He shoots the men together as small figures against the vastness of the landscape, as Lipsky remarks he never wants to leave. Yet it only takes a phone call, a beckoning from Wallace’s real life to break the spell, sending them back into their separate, respective frames.