Generally, biopics are hampered by a need to mollify the estate of whatever figure they are covering, in order to ensure their license to use the person’s life story isn’t revoked. The End of the Tour has no such problem, adapting the memoir of David Lipsky (played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg), chronicling his five day interview with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The Wallace estate has given the film no backing, so writer Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt can give an insight into not only the man’s genius, but also his rage, insecurity, and depression that eventually led to his suicide. As a result, the Wallace of The End of the Tour is one of the most interesting and genuinely human biopic characters of recent years.
Covering the last five days of Wallace’s book tour following the publication and rapturous reception of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, Ponsoldt’s film explores the relationship between Wallace and Rolling Stone journalist Lipsky. As well as an examination of what it is to be a writer and a public figure, The End of the Tour is also a subtly excoriating look at the fragility and toxicity of the male ego, a excellently developed theme that perhaps a more ‘official’ movie would not have been allowed to look at.
After a very successful reading at one of the last stops of the tour, the two Davids go out for drinks with some of Foster Wallace’s friends, Julie and Betsy (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner respectively). As Lipsky gets ever so slightly flirtatious with Betsy, Wallace gets angrier and angrier throughout the evening, and this insecurity shreds the friendly rapport the two have tentatively built up. They start yelling at each other about intelligence and integrity, and the motives that Ponsoldt and Margulies give them really cut them down to size. That the author of one of western literature’s most important recent works could be brought low by as little as some very temporary romantic competition makes him look just as silly as the rest of us, humanising him hugely.
Jason Segel’s excellent performance is also vital to this process. Very underplayed, and with a lovely downbeat chemistry with Jesse Eisenberg, Segel makes the shift from the broad comedy of How I Met Your Mother etc to talky, luxuriously paced drama seemingly effortlessly. The End of the Tour’s best scenes are when just Wallace and Lipsky are together, talking about everything they can think of, from how they wish to be perceived to embarrassing stories about early jobs. Whilst other characters come in and out of the story, including Anna Chlumsky as Lipsky’s girlfriend, Ron Livingston as his boss, and Joan Cusack as their driver, this is absolutely a two-hander. Segel and Eisenberg give calmly assured performances, both able to change the mood of a scene without a word of dialogue.
Margulies’ script is clearly written with a lot of love for his subjects, but he is not too in awe of them to present them as people. As a result, the dialogue is honest and articulate, not having to present us with a Very Important Phrase or historical lesson. Yet, it doesn’t need to do so to still present us with a man who was clearly a genius and huge influence on those around him. We’re never in doubt that the eventual suicide of Wallace would be heartbreaking for Lipsky, even over a decade on from their interview. The End of the Tour is a film that other biopic writers should look to for guidance, one of the wittiest and most charming examples of the genre.