‘The End of the Tour’: The David Foster Wallace Rom Com

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One thing you don’t have to say about The End of the Tour, the new David Foster Wallace movie, is that “it’s not really about David Foster Wallace at all.” Of course it isn’t. There are too many buffers between Wallace and this film to count. Nor is the film any good, as A.O. Scott tried to tell you yesterday. Scott claimed that as a film about writers, Tour “is as good as it gets.” It isn’t. You might even say the film is worse than good: it is bad.

Anyway, the idea that this film is as good as other great films about writers — as, say, Alain Resnais’ Providence — is laughable and strange and makes me wonder if Scott is suffering some sort of delirium. When it comes to Tour, I recommend watching it only as the horror film or romantic comedy it nearly becomes.

Here’s a quick run-through: David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a novelist and journalist whose wife likes David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) better than him because Wallace has achieved literary superstardom with the publication of Infinite Jest. Pale with compersion, Lipsky ventures to Illinois, where he is supposed to profile Wallace for Rolling Stone. The idea is that he should ask Wallace about his rumored heroin addiction.

This happens eventually, but without much emotional effect, and the film soon loses itself in a procedural, a boring J-School course on “how to write a profile.” In fact, the only scene in the movie with any bite shows Wallace berating Lipsky for hitting on his old college girlfriend. Much of the rest of the film is given over to an annoying ambient score, cinematography worthy of the second season of True Detective, and a series of shy giggles and muted squabbles — moments of coupling and uncoupling.

By this I mean that The End of the Tour is an accidental variation on what the philosopher (and self-styled film analyst) Stanley Cavell labeled a “comedy of remarriage.” Back in the day of the Hays Code, some Hollywood screwball comedies (like Adam’s Rib or His Girl Friday) showed their leading couples in the throes of divorce and eventual remarriage because they weren’t supposed to depict adultery. The thing that can’t be portrayed in The End of the Tour isn’t adultery but suicide — Wallace’s suicide — mostly because it hasn’t happened yet, but also because the filmmakers need it as an albatross, as a way of mainlining some gravity into its veins.

Instead of reproducing a suicide, they just show Wallace and Lipsky flirting and breaking up with each other. In fact, the courting of Wallace by Lipsky is so long and arduous that my mind began to drift into the annals of German film theory, from which I recalled a thesis — stated by the writer, attorney, director, and theorist Alexander Kluge — that claims the film, the real film, exists in the cuts between scenes. If what Kluge says is true, I thought, then you might say the real version of The End of the Tour is located in all of the missing scenes where Lipsky and Wallace have sex with each other. Nevertheless, by the end of The End of the Tour, the two Davids are back where they started — they are separated. So instead of a “comedy of remarriage,” you might call it a “dramedy of re-divorce.”

Now, to begin this piece I asserted that you don’t need to tell people this movie is not about David Foster Wallace, but apparently what I said isn’t true because critics keep telling people this anyway. They keep explaining that this isn’t what Wallace was actually like, if they knew him, or that this is a pop icon version of Wallace the writer — a figment of the real thing. I am deeply sympathetic to this view. The film doesn’t even have the approval of Wallace’s estate.

But if a viewer watches Tour and believes it to be accurate or authentically literary, there’s not much these critics can do about it. Such a thing is probably just an expression of a cultural divide that separates many filmgoers from coastal, intellectual elites and famous literary writers. This divide, too, was one that, in his final years, Wallace actively sought to bridge, sometimes in a worthwhile way, sometimes as an annoying Lincoln of the Culture Wars, which were then raging. Too many meandering essays on Wallace, for whatever reason, miss out on this simple point. The film does too, or at least it dramatizes it to ill effect. Instead of cutting away indie film clichés to reveal an Illinois with character it piles them on. It turns its “middle America” — and by extension the place where Wallace lived and worked — into a generic “cinematic” snowscape.

On the other hand, all this handwringing about Wallace’s legacy is melodramatic and weird, especially in light of The End of the Tour’s dopiness. As I suggested above, the film’s indexical relation to Wallace is too slight to cause any real worry — and worrying about this film’s impact on Wallace’s legacy, by the way, reveals the worrier’s poor estimation of Wallace’s own writing, which should be able to speak for itself.

I’ll give a brief, one-stop Tour of what I mean by pointing out that the film is very much a documentary of its actors; it’s less a “tale of two Davids,” as the title of A.O. Scott’s review suggests, and more the tale of a Jesse and a Jason. The former is a persistent literary typecast and flailing New Yorker aspirant whose first book of jokes arrives this September. The latter is a writer of YA fiction whose ex-girlfriend is now dating Jonathan Safran Foer. Crucially, too, both are non-Brechtian actors. Neither is Catherine Deneuve. Neither can play against the film or script.

Nor does the Jason (Segel) even pretend that he was playing David Foster Wallace. The more I read what he says about the role, in fact, the more mesmerized I am by his matroshka-like self-conception and actorly logic. “What I tried to do was picture what an actor I admired would do, and I copied that,” Segel told The Verge. “I imagined what somebody would do if they were given this part, and then I did all of those things.” Jebus.

The End of the Tour — which I’ll remind everyone right now was not actually written by David Foster Wallace — is about two things. For starters, it’s about the slow, simultaneously death of mid-budget cinema and white male literary celebrity. We know this not only because its actors are mid-budget writer-celebrities, but also because it’s a story about white literary genius told by way of a mid-budget film, which is the art form where living culture goes to die.

But mostly, as I said before, it’s a re-divorce dramedy about two seemingly literary men who find that they aren’t right for each other, who have reached The End of the Tour. When it’s all over, Wallace can only bring himself to send Lipsky a shoe.