In a graduate class early last fall, my professor asked if any of us thought we could name a legitimate, bona fide artistic genius of the modern age. Someone in the realm of Bach, Proust, Picasso. We raised our hands and tossed out names—I vouched for Radiohead and Paul Thomas Anderson, in vain—and he considered our arguments, then pointed out the leaks in each one. At the end of the discussion, a single name had been accepted without reservation: David Foster Wallace. This is only to say that agreeing who is or isn’t a genius is tough enough; depicting said genius on film, as is the task in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, is another matter entirely.
The film doesn’t take on the task of covering an entire life or breakthrough moment—as last year’s Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game did with Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, respectively—rather, it finds Wallace right after his breakthrough moment, the publication and storm of acclaim for his second novel, Infinite Jest. Structured as a sort of long conversation between two different kinds of writers—Wallace (Jason Segel) and David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), the Rolling Stone contributor and obscure novelist tasked with interviewing him—we get a only a snapshot of a few days in Wallace’s life, and rather than exploring what makes him a genius, we see how he tries to reconcile the label with himself.
We’re meant to identify, at least initially, with Lipsky. We’re supposed to be in awe of Wallace, to marvel at everything he says, even when he’s only talking about Die Hard or Alanis Morisette. We’re supposed to be bowled over by the magnitude of Infinite Jest, a book over a thousand pages long and marked by the signature use of extensive (and potentially exhausting) endnotes that transformed Wallace from something of a niche literary talent to perhaps the most talked about author in the country. And like Lipsky, we’re supposed to be a bit mystified by Wallace’s determination to come off as nothing more than a normal guy, even when we know his mind is working on a level far above ours.
In avoiding an attempt at illustrating Wallace’s genius outright, Ponsoldt—together with Segel’s performance—ignores the mythology of the man as best he can and tries to show us the author as a human being. Infinite Jest is one of those books you now find in the “Campus Favorites” section of your college bookstore, or see on dorm and apartment shelves, only to learn that maybe one out of every twenty people who owns it has really made a go at reading it. Likewise, Wallace is a writer who, by virtue of his celestial acclaim and the tragedy of his suicide, has a reputation that cannot be discarded as easily as one might like. His writing can be brilliant, challenging, sometimes intentionally difficult (I see you, “Datum Centurio”), other times intensely rewarding (“Forever Overhead,” “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”). The miracle of The End of the Tour is that, for the first time, those of us who didn’t know him personally can separate Wallace the man from the Wallace of his work. We can watch him chew tobacco, nervously work a hand through his hair, deliver the same book-signing shtick—“the new novel’s better than the old one”—that any other author would. We can see him, for once, as a human being not yet tethered to his own legend. We see a Genius that’s just trying to get by and be happy as best he can.
The work that Segel does to make Wallace feel at once familiar and distant is near-sublime; considering that his best role until now included singing Dracula puppets, it might qualify as miraculous. This is all the more impressive in that as we watch Wallace on screen, we know that it’s Segel underneath the bandana and long hair. His face is a bit more gaunt than Wallace’s, his voice a little more stringy. It is not a transformation in the vein of say, Daniel Day Lewis (who could go method as a kitchen table and be convincing) but the distance here may be better. Perhaps its best to get a close impersonation, an interpretation, rather than something that passes as the real thing. Maybe the real Wallace, the one who wrote one of the greatest books of the last hundred years and also hanged himself in his garage, should remain unknowable. His secrets are his own, a film to exploit or investigate his depression would be deeply misguided. If there’s one massive difference between Ponsoldt’s treatment of genius with others that have been recently committed to the screen, it’s that Ponsoldt seems content in his unknowing. He doesn’t need to overturn every stone and dig into every thought, he understands that what makes genius is the distance that exists between it and our standard modes of thinking about and processing life. There are no coffee cup epiphanies here (à la Theory of Everything); even if we saw how Wallace’s mind works, we’d likely not understand it anyway. It’s better, then, to sit back and take what we can, and appreciate the writer as a man rather than a mountain. To see the small smiles, the little conversational quips taken from Lipsky’s extensive recordings of their time together, feels more appropriate. Here is the man, as best as we can possibly know him, which is to say, only as good as Lipsky could know him, and that is enough. Just look at him play with his dogs. Look at him stare out the window at the sprawl of Minneapolis, smiling, thinking, full of life. Just look at that.