Making a movie that is just people talking is tricky. It may not be technically difficult, like a major action film, but driving a story, and making it dynamic, solely through discussions and dialogue can be an obstacle in its own right. The End of the Tour is just people talking. In fact, it is primarily two men, and self-conscious writers at that, talking. However, since one of them is the legendary, late writer David Foster Wallace, there’s a movie here.
If you are not familiar, Wallace is one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation, including his iconic novel Infinite Jest. That’s what generates the momentum of the film. The book made Wallace a celebrity, so Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent some time with him at the end of his book tour to write a profile of him. The experience eventually became the Lipsky book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which he wrote after Wallace’s 2008 suicide, and that book is what inspired this movie.
That’s it, really. Lipsky, who is played by Jesse Eisenberg, and Wallace, who is played by Jason Segel, talk and talk and talk. They discuss pop culture and writerly, and human, anxiety and they argue sometimes and really get along at other times. It’s largely a two-hander, although we do occasionally see other characters. Somewhat inexplicably, Anna Chlumsky and Ron Livingston have small, entirely insignificant roles. We do get to spend more time with Joan Cusack, Mickey Sumner (who never looks the same in any role even though she doesn’t seem to dramatically change anything about her appearance), and Mamie Gummer, who are all quite good in their limited roles.
The movie lives and dies with Eisenberg and Sege, though. Eisenberg is one of the finer actions working today, so it is no surprise he’s very good in the film. He has the less flashy role, the role that requires a bit of heavier lifting, and he’s more than up to the task. Of course, Segel’s role comes with its own burdens. He’s playing the iconic figure of the two, the one people are familiar with. Folks would not have been happy had he not delivered a performance they felt lived up to Wallace’s legacy. Additionally, Segel did not have the same track record as Eisenberg when it came to acting chops.
As you may have heard by now, Segael is also very good. He doesn’t do a Wallace impression, beyond looking quite a bit like him physically, although doing so would have sort have been pointless, because he’s known more through his written words. What Segel is able to do is give a dramatic, emotive performance that helps bring Wallace’s words, taken from Lipsky’s audio recordings in many instances, to life.
The movie is funny at times, and existential and others. Again, it’s a lot of conversation, and it does take a little while to warm up, but eventually it gets there. After a little while, you are just watching characters talking, with any notion of impressions falling by the wayside. It stops being Jason Segel as Wallace and just becomes Wallace, in a sense. Obviously, the movie can’t be too dynamic, and it’s not shot in the most engaging of ways. It looks fine, even nice, but you can only do so much with scenes of guys buying snacks at a gas station.
The thing about The End of the Tour is, some of the value comes from things that have nothing to do with filmmaking. Because this is not just a movie about two guys talking. It’s about David Foster Wallace and another guy talking. The film doesn’t trade on this, but it’s an inevitable cloud hanging over the film. Part of the quality of the movie is generated by the simple fact people probably come in with some sense of Wallace already. If this was two original characters having these same conversations with the same acting, it wouldn’t feel the same. This isn’t the movie’s fault, but it also isn’t something the movie can take credit for. That’s not to say the film doesn’t generate its own value.
The End of the Tour is quite good. It is engaging and it doesn’t feel like it drags at all, even though it’s so dialogue heavy. The acting is great. It has some interesting things to say about writing and America and simply being alive. Sure, that’s partially because Wallace had interesting things to say about those topics, but perhaps credit is deserved for the filmmakers for recognizing that.
The DVD comes with an audio commentary featuring director James Ponsoldt, writer Donald Margulies, and Jason Segel; a making-of Behind the Tour (25 min); A Conversation with Composer Danny Elfman (8 min); six deleted scenes, and the trailer.