Film review: ‘The End of the Tour’

Morgan Smith

My IMDb score: 10/10

The End of the Tour Poster
“The End of the Tour” was released July 31. (Movie poster courtesy of IMDb.)

“The End of the Tour” is not a film about superhuman secret agents, dinosaurs or fantastical circumstances. At its core, it’s about a week-long conversation between two men.

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One man wants success and fortune, to be validated and thought well of by millions of people. The other man has those things, but is made uncomfortable by them. As the film eloquently put it, “He had everything and wanted something better, but I just wanted what he had.”

It is about David Foster Wallace, a writer who just shocked the nation with “Infinite Jest,” a book many refer to as one of the great American literary achievements. It is also about David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter and fiction writer, who is writing a story on Wallace and the last stop on his tour. He has just published a book, and he felt abysmal compared to Wallace’s achievement.

Wallace is played rapturously by Jason Segel in the film. Segel as Wallace made me think — think about myself, think about other people, even think about the way I think. Yes, he was only speaking words lifted straight from Wallace himself, but it was his physicality and delivery that amazed me.

Segel created an on-screen warmness rarely seen, the persona of a poked bear ready to attack, as well as a coldness and depression so real, and so sad, I wanted to walk through the screen and say, “We love you, David, not just for your achievements, but for who you are.” David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. I was only one year old when “Infinite Jest” was published, and thus found out about it only through this film. And I only found out about who Wallace really was because of Jason Segel’s performance. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Jesse Eisenberg, as usual, was flawless, playing a man (David Lipsky) obsessed with obsession, dying for the attention and fame Wallace has. Maybe he wanted to do this interview so that some of Wallace’s magic could run off on him. You can see it in his subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, behavior. When they are watching a movie together, if you look around the frame, you can see Lipsky staring at Wallace creepily, desperate to discern some sort of profound answer or secret to life from the way Wallace looked at things.

From what I understand, Wallace was a national phenomenon and a celebrity. When the film was over, I walked out of the dark theater into the particularly blinding summer sunlight and was struck by a fitting analogy. The sun has no idea all seven billion of us exist, no idea of its importance to us. When we look into it, we scrunch our eyes, as if confused, and can’t make out its features, only its residual glow. We love it when it’s here and miss it when it’s gone. But the sun doesn’t shine for us. It does so because of its own nature. And because of its own nature, one day it will die and fade away. It will leave a gravitational dent where it used to be.

I felt the same about David Foster Wallace, and all innocent people plagued by fame and credit they feel they don’t deserve. And, like Amy Winehouse, like Kurt Cobain, Wallace took himself from us, maybe because we demanded too much from him and didn’t give enough back. Maybe that’s why we call them stars.

“The End of the Tour” is an elegy to broken dreams, fleeting pleasures, hollow achievements and the American ideal of wishing for something more, even when there isn’t.

If I haven’t been attentive to the aspects of the film itself, it’s intentional. Because the film bears no signature, draws no attention to itself. It is about a man, a real man. Perhaps a man who was more real than any of us could ever hope to be. More than anything, he desired his normality, his realness that “Infinite Jest” and its success robbed him of. Because of one book, he was made into a god, a celebrity, a non-human. He denied credit of being any of these things.

In the film, he says he feels smarter than other people only in the sense that at least he is aware of how little he knows, as opposed to others flaunting fake intelligence like counterfeiters. Socrates, if he existed, remarked to his students, “Know thyself.” He said the wisest people were the ones who were acutely aware of how much they did or didn’t know. And they called Socrates the wisest man in the world.

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Was David Foster Wallace the wisest man in the world, or the greatest mind of his generation, as the newspapers said? Maybe, maybe not. But if one thing is absolutely for certain, he knew his own mind, he knew who he wanted to be and he knew his own shortcomings. And that’s more than most of us can say.

“The End of the Tour” is playing only at the Lyric Cinema Café.

Collegian A&E Film Beat Writer Morgan Smith can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @MDSFilms.