“It often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire,” observes David Foster Wallace, subject of the biopic “The End of the Tour” (2015), in his 2004 review of Edwin Williamson’s “Borges: A Life.” “And the more intimate and thorough the bio, the stronger this feeling usually is.” As I watched the relationship between interviewee/literary giant David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and interviewer/relatively unknown journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) unfold on screen, I could not help but remember Wallace’s cautionary words against literary biographical works: the discovery that the writer is not the reader’s idealized persona of the writer creates dissonance; the focus of the reader should be on the works themselves, not the writer’s personal life. There are always the questions, when viewing a biopic, of accuracy and bias as well. The movie frequently references its own self-awareness of such expected critiques, but this alone does not eliminate them. The repeated mention of Lipsky—and, by extension, the movie—which is based off of Lipsky’s memoir, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”—potentially offering a skewed view on Wallace only served to make me further question whether or not the subject himself would have approved. It is for these reasons that it felt slightly wrong to watch “The End of the Tour.”
Yet, for many other reasons, it also felt so incredibly right.
Controversy aside, “The End of the Tour” delivers a well-developed story and incredible performances by both Segel and Eisenberg. Segel brings a sensitive poignance to David Foster Wallace, while always maintaining that we most likely are never seeing past his persona and into his core. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is at once relatable and delightfully irritating as we watch him try to befriend Wallace while concurrently studying him and gathering the famous author’s words to use—and potentially twist—in his Rolling Stone article. The dynamic between the two men alternates between tense and relaxed due to the wide range of frequently contradictory emotions that both characters deal with. Lipsky admires and respects Wallace, yet wants to see himself as Wallace’s potential equal. Wallace struggles between his want for solitude and his craving for attention. The result is a multi-layered portrait of the two men which—even if paradoxically created in memory of a man who wished to see these kinds of biographical works disappear—is undoubtedly one of the most thoughtful literary biopics out there.
Although Wallace himself suggested that a knowledge of the artist’s personal life may only lessen the impact of his art, after watching “The End of the Tour,” I’m not sure that I agree; I don’t feel that Wallace “could not possibly have written the works [I] admire”—I believe that he, alone, is the only one who possibly could have. The film’s Wallace has the same, inordinately aware, thoughtfully pessimistic voice as appears in the actual Wallace’s writing—and if this is due to inaccuracy or bias on Lipsky’s or screenwriter Donald Margulies’s part, I don’t want to know. “The End of the Tour” allows the viewer to avoid any of the dissonance Wallace describes in his critique of biographies and, personally, I prefer it that way. If you can ignore—for an hour and 46 minutes—the fact that David Foster Wallace probably would have much preferred you ignore his personal life and simply read his writing instead, “The End of the Tour” is a complicated and intimate film that is well worth watching in spite of the controversial questions it begs.