Thursday, August 13, 2015

A close encounter with a literary star

David Foster Wallace meets a journalist in The End of the Tour The result: An intriguing movie.
The End of the Tour, a movie about a literary promotional tour taken by the late David Foster Wallace, is less a movie than a conversation.

That's not to say that End of the Tour, which stars Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as a journalist who's writing a Rolling Stone article about the author, lacks cinematic flavor.

As directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), End of the Tour has the personal tension of a theatrical piece, but the movie also opens the door to Wallace's unkempt private world.

I've never had much interest in Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). He's mostly as a comic actor, but he's never been better than he is as Wallace, a writer of disheveled charm and much admired accomplishment.

Siegel conveys Wallace's insecurities, his ordinariness (which may partly have been a pose) and his casual expressions of brilliance.

When Wallace stops to consider the answer a question, he's not stalling for time: He's really thinking -- not only about what he wants to say, but about how it might sound in an interview.

Eisenberg, an actor of accusatory nervousness, is equally good as David Lipsky, the author and journalist who accompanied Wallace on the tail end of a book tour that ended in Minneapolis.

Lipsky wrote Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which was published 2010.

The events Lipsky wrote about, and which form the basis of the movie, take place in 1996. With Infinite Jest catching fire, Wallace began to learn the joys and liabilities of being a literary star, someone approached by outsiders with reverence.

For the most part, The End of the Tour is a two-hander with brief support coming from Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner as women who turn up for Wallace's reading in Minneapolis.

Joan Cusack has a funny turn as the person assigned to "handle" Wallace in Minneapolis, a thankless job performed by a cheerfully dim woman.

After listening to Wallace's interview with the local public radio station, Cusack's character says that she found the author so interesting, she might have to read his book.

Levels of complexity ripple through The End of the Tour.

An envious Lipsky tries to be as smart and perceptive as possible, but he seems to know that he's not on Wallace's level. And, yes, it matters to him.

For his part, Wallace isn't only talking to Lipsky, he's talking to himself, airing fears about how celebrity, though desirable in small doses, may actually destroy him. Can an icon, even a newly minted one, ever have normal conversations?

The movie opens in 2008 with Lipsky learning about Wallace's death. The story then flashes back to the meeting that constitutes the bulk of the movie. Some of this close encounter takes place in Wallace's home, some in Lipsky's rented car, and some in hotel rooms.

Our knowledge of Wallace's death adds eerie resonance to much of what follows. His insecurities never seem trivial.

The same can't be said for some of Wallace's pop-cultural preoccupations: Crappy television and movies and junk food washed down with soda become bricks in the wall Wallace builds to zone himself off from the world.

The End of the Tour isn't a bio-pic. You won't learn anything about Wallace's early life. When we meet him, he's teaching writing at Illinois State University. He avoids the New York limelight. He covers his head with an ever-present bandanna, but worries that even that may be seen as an affectation, a bit of self-conscious branding.

His problem: He's an observer who suddenly has become the observed.

Lipsky sleeps on a mattress on the floor of Wallace's modest, disheveled home, and the two men develop an intimacy that keeps blurring lines: Are they friends? Are they journalist and subject? Are they a couple of competitive writers? Is it possible to have an honest conversation with a tape recorder constantly running?

End of the Tour is a movie about intimacy in a contrived context, about letting one's guard down and about protecting private places. It's an intriguing endeavor, and it has been made with intelligence, humor and haunting traces of wistful sadness.

The world eventually would lose Wallace; here we see a writer who may already have been losing himself.

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