Making a movie about the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace would seem challenging on several counts. First there's the issue of turning a writer's craft into the stuff of fresh cinema. Then there's the issue of taking this particular writer's craft -- and its digressions, curlicues and literary observations -- and turning it into fresh cinema.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that "The End of the Tour" has pulled off the feat, taking the dusty subgenre of the writing-life movie and enlivening it anew. The film, which world-premiered at Sundance this past weekend and will be released in theaters by A24 later this year, is intimate and insightful, Linklater by way of a literary icon.
Rather than examine the late Wallace's critical or formative experiences, "Tour" takes a hyper-close-up view of five days in the author's life circa 1996 as he meets David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone journalist and the eyes through which we view the story.
The film is based on an eponymous book Lipsky published in 2008 after Wallace's death. In it, the two embark on a series of plane and car trips, with the aim of Lipsky writing a Rolling Stone piece. Wallace is just finishing promoting his opus, "Infinite Jest" — the conclusion alluded to in the title — but in a sense it's just the beginning, since he is about to be rocketed, reluctantly, to literary superstardom.
As they travel, observations about life, writing, sex and fame all spill casually but elegantly off both their lips. As in his writing, Wallace is constantly deconstructing — he can barely be asked anything by Lipsky without speculating about the causes of the question and consequences of the response — and the resultant conversations force us to look at familiar situations anew. They may be doing little but talking as they hop from Wallace's modest Bloomington, Ill., home to various literary stops. But what they're talking about makes all the difference. It's a chamber piece of the profound.
The people behind "The End of the Tour" — director James Ponsoldt, star Jason Segel and Pulitzer-winning screenwriter Donald Margulies — embraced the approach, they said, because of all the possibilities it afforded.
"I saw in that [moment[ an inherent event, it being the last days of this tour at the end of which Wallace was catapulted into this stratosphere," Margulies said in an interview with Ponsoldt and Segel. "It [encompassed] so many of the themes that have always captured my imagination as a writer — the relationship between mentor and protégé, between colleagues … between celebrity and artistry. And all these conundra come together in this story."
Ponsoldt, a self-confessed Wallace fanboy who previously helmed Sundance hit "The Spectacular Now," said he was moved to join the film because of the issues it allowed him to explore.
"These are two smart guys dealing with very real stuff," he said. "It's who we mentally aspire to be, talking and wrestling with the things we actually deal with." (You can watch the full video of the interview above.)
One of the refreshing aspects of the film is its eschewal of the man-meets-idol flow of so many films in the category, in which the idol is crusty at the start and warm and nougaty as the foreign object begins to get to him. Not so here. Wallace can be open and inviting early in the film, and then paranoid and dismissive later on; it's the circumstance and his own triggers that determine his attitude, not an arbitrary screenwriting structure.
Equally important is that, despite the lofty ambitions of Wallace's calling, there's a kind of universality to the message. "What hit me about the book [is the] same theme runs through the script," said Segel, who gives a standout performance. "Where we're told to put our value is not going to be the thing that satisfies us."
There is, it should be noted, something of a literary controversy around the film. Wallace's editor and trust registered objections to "Tour" when it went into production last spring.
"The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, David's family, and David's longtime publisher Little, Brown and Company wish to make it clear that they have no connection with, and neither endorse nor support 'The End of the Tour,'" read a statement from the trust.
"This motion picture is loosely based on transcripts from an interview David consented to eighteen years ago for a magazine article about the publication of his novel, 'Infinite Jest.' That article was never published and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie." [The reasons for its non-publication remain murky — Rolling Stone is believed to have made the choice, though Lipsky said at the premiere that he had simply been given another assignment and also alluded to the (seemingly enviable?) problem of having "too many good quotes." Margulies, for his part, has said the movie is based on Lipsky's book and that he didn't listen to the tapes of the original interviews.]
But for all the objections, one comes away from the film with a distinct feeling that it has done right by the spirit of the late author's writing.
Near the end of the movie, Wallace and Segal are hashing out some issues as they drive when the late novelist says, "Writers [of his scope] aren't smarter than anyone else. They're just more compelling in their stupidity, or their confusion." It's one of the few assertions in the film that may not ring true.