“Biopic” is a short-hand term for a biographical film which covers the life of a real-life figure. These films, sometimes epic in scope, have always been popular, especially with Oscar voters. Look at best picture winners “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Gandhi”, “Braveheart”, and “The King’s Speech.”
The typical biopic model seems to be the birth-to-death story, which was sort of run into the ground following “Ray” and “Walk the Line”. Despite going through the entire life of an individual, most of these films barely touches on what makes a lot of these individuals so great or so interesting.
In comes “The End of the Tour”, which tells the story of a real person in an extraordinary way. Instead of documenting an entire life, it takes place over just four days.
The subject of “The End of the Tour” is David Foster Wallace, the late author of “Infinite Jest“, a novel which spans over 1,000 pages and is often cited as one of the greatest books ever written. Wallace, who suffered from depression throughout his life, committed suicide in 2008.
In the film, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) follows Wallace (Jason Segel) during the last few days of his “Infinite Jest” book tour. The film doesn’t even include the title card that most biopics would have at the end saying that the profile Lipsky was working on was never published.
Rather, the film is based off a book Lipsky eventually wrote about Wallace called “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.” There were a lot of interesting stages in David Foster Wallace’s life. He held odd jobs, attempted suicide, entered rehab, and lived in a halfway house. The decision to only capture four days in his life seems limiting, but it is a deliberate decision that really pays off, and it allows us to see this brilliant person in ways that a typical birth-to-life biopic could not.
It is not the entire scope of Wallace’s life that is the best way to know him, but rather the little things. That’s aided by Jason Segel’s phenomenal performance as David Foster Wallace, where he teaches you so much about the man by doing so little. When Lipsky first enters Wallace’s home, Wallace says, “I feel like I should offer you tea or something.” Right away, you understand that this is a guy who isn’t completely adjusted to social norms.
The most unique part about “The End of the Tour” is that it isn’t so much a story but rather a series of long and insightful conversations. Instead of trying to hit on all the major benchmarks in Wallace’s life, the film instead attempts to capture how Wallace felt at this certain moment, when he was starting to achieve the sort of fame that most writers can only dream of. You can just tell from every shot that director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Marguiles have the utmost respect for Wallace.
“The End of the Tour” is the perfect entryway into David Foster Wallace for those of us who are only vaguely familiar with his work. I have read his short story “Consider the Lobster” and his commencement speech at Kenyon College. Like many others, I am too intimidated by “Infinite Jest” to ever pick it up and read it. The book clocks in at 1,079 pages and includes about 400 footnotes. If you search for “Infinite Jest” on Google, you will come across many websites that give you instructions on how to read this book. In this regard, “The End of the Tour” might be best for people who aren’t as familiar with the author, as it gives an in-depth look at Wallace’s brilliant and intriguing musings on life, death, and junk food.
And yet, “The End of the Tour” does not come close to giving us the full picture of David Foster Wallace, and that is what makes this film so good. Watching Wallace recover from depression to go on and work on his masterpiece would feel too Hollywood.
Watching Wallace try to reconcile his newfound success with his depression, however, is much more enlightening. This is a film that pits Wallace’s public persona with his private life. It could be hard to know, like with most public figures, how much of his image is manufactured. Then again, this is a guy who doesn’t own a television set, not because he is pretentious, but because he is afraid that he would watch it too much.
This whole story is told primarily through the Lipsky’s perspective. This storytelling trick has been used many times before, but it really works wonders here. Lipsky is a struggling young writer who wants the life Wallace has. You can tell that from the moment Lipsky first glimpses at Wallace’s much nicer hotel room. At some points, Lipsky wants to interview Wallace when all Wallace wants to do is have a conversation. So many people have connected with Wallace so deeply through his writing, and the tragedy that the film captures is that he had trouble connecting back with them.
Again, this does not define all of David Foster Wallace. What this excellent and innovative film teaches us though, is that even a few insignificant days can teach us a lot about a person.
“The End of the Tour” is in theatres now.