Thursday, August 13, 2015

The End of the Tour (opens August 14th in Cleveland)

Review by Pamela Zoslov

“Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning,” wrote David Lipsky in his memoir of the writer David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself in 2008 at age 46, after writing his wife a two-page note and spreading out the pages of his unfinished novel The Pale King nearby. “It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.”

On assignment for Rolling Stone, Lipsky befriended Wallace, the tall, soft-spoken, enigmatic novelist, at the peak of his fame, just after the 1996 release of his massive, acclaimed second novel Infinite Jest. A published novelist himself, Lipsky admired, envied, resented and ultimately loved the brilliant, troubled and exceptionally kind Wallace. Two years after Wallace's suicide, Lipsky published Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, a book recounting an intense five days Lipsky spent with Wallace on the last leg of his book tour, hanging out, talking, bantering, bickering, philosophizing.

Lipsky's book is the basis of the new film THE END OF THE TOUR, directed by James Ponsolt and adapted from Lipsky by David Marguiles. Fans of Wallace, and there are many, were alarmed when it was revealed that Jason Segel, best known for comedy roles, was cast as David Foster Wallace. The outcry became more hysterical when a film still was posted on the Web showing Segel looking awkward in his granny glasses and head bandana (an accessory Wallace affected when he lived in Arizona and sweated copiously).

Naysayers' doubts should be quelled by Segel's performance. A friend of Wallace's said of him, that he “had this ability to be inside someone else's skin,” and Segel does something similar with Wallace. Even if he doesn't resemble DFW except in physical size, he inhabits the character in all its contradictions – confidence and crippling self-doubt; warmth and sudden coldness, sociability and distance. Segel's soft, bearlike physical presence and softly modulated voice make Wallace, for all his literary inscrutability, someone you would like to have known. The actor has the ability, evident in his performance in the small, overlooked JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME (2011), to convey a bodhisattva, a person who delays reaching nirvana out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. This quality is especially fitting for Wallace, who felt deeply, rescued dogs no one else wanted, thought of books as a way to conquer loneliness, and battled clinical depression for most of his short life.

The film opens with Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) getting the news of Wallace's suicide. This prompts him to retrieve his '90s-era Sony tape recorder and listen to Foster's quiet musings about life and literature. We flash back to '96, when Lipsky persuades his editor, presumably Jann Wenner (Ron Livingston, in a flattering bit of casting) that Wallace has the status of a rock star, and is thus worth profiling in the then still slightly relevant Rolling Stone.

Leaving his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) at home immersed in, and enthralled by, Infinite Jest, Lipsky takes off for snowy Illinois to travel with Wallace, then living alone in a house with two big rescue dogs. Wallace is not comfortable being interviewed. He thinks it's like “being a whore, cashing in,” but is interested enough to know whether the magazine will send Annie Liebowitz to photograph him. He chews tobacco, confesses to having a crush on Alanis Morisette, doesn't have a TV because he couldn't resist its allure. “It would be on all the time,” he says. (The influence of popular media was a frequent subject in his writing). He's says being alone “comes with the territory" and that he's "hard to be around.” (Wallace later married Karen Green, happily by all accounts, except that even a happy marriage could not save him.)

Wallace insists that Lipsky stay in his messy “guest room” (a mattress on the floor surrounded by stacks of books and papers). Lipsky observes Wallace teaching his writing class at Illinois State, and takes off with him for Minneapolis, where they are driven to Wallace's book signings by the chirpy Patty Gunderson (Joan Cusack), who offers to stop at the Mary Tyler Moore statue (“It's one of our biggest attractions!”) Promoting his book makes Wallace uncomfortable, and he asks to skip the Q&A, because people invariably ask banal questions like “Where do you get your ideas?” Lipsky accompanies Wallace to book signings, a public-radio interview and, at Wallace's request, the Mall of America.

The film is basically a two-hander, a feature-length conversation between Wallace and Lipsky, a kind of My Dinner With Andre for the 1990s set. Lipsky is callow and often obnoxious — Eisenberg is kind of a specialist in irritating, rapid-talking pests — and at times you think Wallace should just deck him. He queries Wallace about his depression, for which he has been hospitalized, medicated and given electroshock treatments. Wallace gives him a hard stare. “I was depressed,” he says, describing how writing for “food pellets from the universe” affects your ego. At the insistence of his editor, Lipsky presses Wallace about rumors of heroin use (“No, I never was a heroin addict.”). Wallace finally loses patience with Lipsky, accusing him of flirting with Wallace's attractive friend Betsy (Mickey Sumner). Even then, Wallace reacts more in sorrow than anger. “Stay away from her, OK? Be a good guy,” he exhorts the younger David.

More has been written about Wallace's writing and the sprawling, dense, 1,079-page dystopian opus Infinite Jest in particular than I can adequately summarize. But this film is not as much about David Foster Wallace the writer as about Dave Wallace the guy, and it's not always evident where the two converge. Wallace embraced contradictions. He was verbally dextrous, clever and driven, but he embraced the ordinary, kicking up his heels at dances at a Baptist church hall. Adept at fiction and nonfiction writing, he received the highest honors (a MacArthur Fellowship, among others), but was plagued by shame and self-doubt.

“His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life,” wrote D.T. Max in a profile of Wallace in The New Yorker. 'Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being,' he once said. Good writing should help readers to 'become less alone inside.'” 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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