If there was a mathematical algorithm to create movies that film critics—and only film critics—would love, it might produce something like The End of the Tour. The film’s subject, the late author David Foster Wallace, was a literary god to young, white, well-educated, liberal men, a demographic overrepresented among film nerds with a public platform. Tour is a story for and about writers in all of their arrogant, insecure, and competitive glory, and the filmmakers assume for their audience a reverence for the profession and all the twisted, tormented souls who toil in it. Is it any wonder that critics have rallied behind this one?
With its odd combination of unlikable characters and a meandering, conversational structure, however, The End of the Tour will disappoint viewers not already predisposed to writer worship. The film follows Wallace (Jason Segel) and David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a young journalist covering the final days of the author’s book tour in support of his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Those waiting for a dramatic plot twist will be let down; the entire film is a series of chats between the two writers as they travel from Illinois to Minnesota and back for a reading.
Along the way, they bond, butt heads, and debate, consistently returning to a single subject: fame. Wallace has it and doesn’t want it—he says he treasures his “regular guyness”—while Lipsky, who has just published an unheralded novel, covets it. As the two try to talk their way into a reconciliation of their contrasting perspectives, they instead grow further apart, turning a burgeoning friendship into a contemptuous professional relationship.
It sounds more dramatic than it is, but there is a certain thrill in the film’s dialogue-driven approach. The timing of the film’s release helps: Coming near the end of a summer movie season that prefers action-movie quips to realistic dialogue, Donald Margulies’ script is a welcome correction, and the two actors relish every word of his snappy dialogue. Eisenberg is particularly comfortable with such material, having previously mastered Aaron Sorkin’s whiz-bang verbal fireworks in The Social Network. Across the room, Segel is believable but never quite revelatory as Wallace, overcoming the worst fears about his casting—that he was too doofy to depict Wallace’s intellectual prowess—but doing little to suggest he has a future in dramas.
Of course, Segel’s understatement is intentional, though never totally effective. The film makes much of the contrast between Wallace’s brilliant writing and his painfully average personality. Onscreen, Wallace is portrayed as a Midwestern guy who loves junk food, is addicted to television, and, when given a day off in Minnesota, chooses to spend it at the Mall of America. It’s a thoughtful spin on the voice-of-a-generation archetype, but the banality of genius works better as a concept than as the basis for a character’s development.
As it stands, there is little character there. Although the occasional insight into Wallace’s addled mind manages to break through, the overwhelming reverence director James Ponsoldt has for the writer (he calls himself a “Wallace obsessive” and had a passage from Jest read at his wedding) smothers any possibility of actual insight. So complete is Ponsoldt’s worship that he often frames Wallace with natural backlight, suggesting a heavenly, ethereal presence. It’s clear that he’s trying to lionize the author, but the film never shows what Wallace did to deserve it. To figure that one out, we’d all be better off reading a book.
The End of the Tour opens Aug. 7 at E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda, Angelika Film Center in Fairfax, and AMC Shirlington.