As a portrait of David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour is mostly a failure. Along with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), we follow Wallace’s 1996 promotion tour for Infinite Jest, but we learn less about him from the film than we could divine from reading his justly-celebrated novels and essays. Jason Segel delivers a laid-back performance as the iconic author, mixing up aw-shucks-charm with deceptively incisive one-liners, surely stripped verbatim from Lipsky’s article (or his memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself). But you never get the sense that you’re watching anyone other than Jason Segel. Late in the film, when he’s asked to mine the depths of the depression that would ultimately end Wallace’s life, his limitations as a dramatic actor are achingly apparent. Wallace, as presented by The End of the Tour, is an unresolved paradox, an immiscible mixture of the mythic and the quotidian.
This is not to say that The End of the Tour is a failure; the trick is that it’s not, in fact, intending to be a portrait of David Foster Wallace. Rather, this is a film about David Lipsky or, more precisely, a film about how Lipsky perceives Wallace. For Lipsky, Wallace represents everything he wants to be: an author who’s achieved incredible critical (and commercial) success, someone already anointed as the next Great American Writer. Wallace operates as a living reminder of Lipsky’s own perceived inadequacies while, inadvertently, Lipsky does the same for his interview subject, who comes to resent both the power imbalance in their relationship (along with Lipsky’s comparative prowess when it comes to chatting with women: a frequent topic of conversation).
To be a writer requires a certain modicum of arrogance. Per Segel’s/Wallace’s words, “I don’t think writers are smarter than other people. I think they’re more compelling in their stupidity.” If you want others to read your words, you need the pretence of authority, typically assumed through a combination of reputation and rhetorical tricks (which Wallace has written about at length). Whether you’re David Foster Wallace promoting a great novel, David Lipsky collating an extended interview or David Crewe composing a film review, you’re compelled to present yourself as something ‘better’, someone worth spending the time to read. Whether your writing is formal or colloquial, authoritative or casual, it’s produced with the prevailing prerogative to keep your reader reading.
Generally this charade of authority is built over a deep chasm of insecurity. For me – and, if The End of the Tour is anything to go by, for Lipsky and Wallace – writing is about strolling out in public without any clothes and pretending it’s no big deal. What right do you have to pretend your voice is the one worth hearing? I’ve deeply internalised these anxieties to the point where it’s almost impossible for me to read another writer’s piece without being consumed by jealousy – either directed at the seemingly unobtainable quality of their writing (like when Lipsky finally picks up Infinite Jest and can only respond with: “…shit.”) or at their achievements (being published here/getting this many retweets while I languish etc etc) for something I feel like I could do. It’s deeply toxic and mean-spirited, undeniably, but it’s a manifestation of this fundamental feeling that I’m a fraud. I’m torn between two perpetually repeating questions: “Why aren’t I as successful as [insert writer here]?” and “How on earth am I more successful than [insert writer here]?”
The increasing volativity of the relationship between Lipsky and Wallace is really about Lipsky tackling with such issues, struggling with his own sense of self-worth – or lack thereof. Objectively, each is a successful writer, if to different degrees, but the bickering and jockeying that increasingly dominates their conversations is driven, at its core, but their inability to feel comfortable with that success. As a portrait of one man, The End of the Tour might be imperfect – but as a portrayal of a writer’s inescapable self-doubt, it’s spot on.