First Impressions: The End of the Tour

Several of my friends who had recently read Infinite Jest praised The End of the Tour warmly and approved of the film's portrayal of the novel's writer. Last summer, I read The Pale King, which was published posthumously in 2009, and was hoping the film would reflect the complexity of the famed author's writings. Given this is the first cinematic treatment of writer David Foster Wallace, I entered the theatre expecting a much more ambitious film than I ultimately saw. The thematic scope is very narrow; basically, Wallace is afraid of coming across as phony as he goes on tour to promote his latest novel. The story focuses on what Lipsky learns about Wallace as he interviews him throughout the tour, which for the most part is that he is an acutely sensitive but otherwise regular guy.

The Faustian bargain caused by fame is a literary trope not unique to Wallace. Aside from biographical quirks such as drinking artificial spit and a superficial tangle with depression, much of the essential dialogue could just as well have been spoken by Thomas Pynchon or Bill Watterson as by the late writer. Had the topic of fame been addressed a little more indirectly, we could have seen more specific examples of its importance in understanding Wallace and his creative process. The simpleness of the script is reflected in its direction. The cinematography is unprovocative, the music saccharine. Perhaps the film's mundane style is supposed to reflect Wallace's humility and show that he is, at least according to him, a regular guy, but it comes across as a regular experience and robs the encounter between the two writers of its status as a special, meaningful event. Of course, the limited range of topics discussed could be a consequence of remaining faithful to the source material, that is, Lipsky's book, in which case the quality of the film only reflects the quality of his interview. However, Jason Segel's performance as Wallace is convincing and keeps the film from devolving completely into a generic feel-good drama. The End of the Tour might entertain those who pride themselves in knowing who David Foster Wallace is, but even those unfamiliar with the author would leave the theatre without having learned much about him.

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