The End of the Tour is probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a Matryoshka Russian dolls analogy put to paper. It isn’t “meta”, nor does it contain literal stories within stories, but it’s a work that is only birthed out of the ones that came before it. The outer shell is of course the film itself, directed by James Ponsoldt, and its script, written by Donald Marguiles. That script is wrapped around its original source material; a novel/memoir authored by David Lipsky. Nested within that memoir is the book’s origin; an interview conducted by Lipsky for Rolling Stone magazine with literary wonder David Foster Wallace. And at the very core of that interview is the subject – Infinite Jest – the novel that catapulted Wallace to stardom.
One man’s story becomes another’s, becomes another’s, becomes another’s.
That’s not to say Wallace isn’t the front and center topic of this movie. But it’s also hard not to wonder how he, a man who fretted about how narcissistic it was to show up for a few pages in Rolling Stone magazine, would feel about these works that have cascaded from his own.
Then again, that’s what writing is: The endless retelling of a few really good stories.
Spanning the five days Lipsky spent with Wallace on his publicity tour in 1996, The End of the Tour is a collection of moments, conversation, and philosophical insights between the two. The topics range from cultural observations about the way we consume television to deeper, personal revelations concerning Wallace’s relationship with fame and his life post-Infinite Jest. Wallace also addresses, when pressed, rumors of his substance abuse issues and a time when he was on suicide watch. He compares the sensation of wanting to end his life with jumping out of a burning skyscraper, noting that it wasn’t about wanting to fall. It was about needing to escape the pain of the fire, however horrible the alternative. Twelve years later, outside the confines of this particular story, Wallace would revisit that pain a final time and take his life at the age of 46.
The film also explores the dynamic between these two writers, both as peers and from a journalist vs. subject perspective. In less than a week we watch the pair quickly move from cautious strangers to casual friends, only to ultimately, as a product of their own insecurities and similarities, become passive-aggressive and adversarial.
Part of that adversarial relationship stems from the delicate egos of the two frontmen, played expertly by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. While Eisenberg does his usual thing and does it well, Segel’s performance is so far away from what we’ve seen him do before that it completely steals the show. He perfectly captures a man trapped in a state of reluctance and an exaggerated state of awareness, constantly second-guessing how his interview is going to play with the public, and then berating himself for caring what anyone thinks (followed by worrying if that makes him look like an asshole, and so on).
As easily as I can recommend The End of the Tour for all of those reasons, I most recommend it for what it isn’t. This movie defies genre categorization or any standard formulas or story structure. This isn’t your stereotypical biopic either, spanning the hardships of Wallace’s life, nor is it a bromance road trip comedy about how much these two dudes like each other. It’s simply a series of conversations. Conversation about snacks. Friends. Fears. Art. Loneliness.
Because as the man once said himself: Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.