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What’s David Foster Wallace Doing in a Bromance Movie?

It’s hard to look lonely in a road trip movie. The End of the Tour, a new film from director James Ponsoldt, recreates the final leg of the rockstar-like tour David Foster Wallace undertook in 1996 to promote his novel Infinite Jest. The novel, his breakthrough success following two relatively unnoticed books, gets him an expense account and an explosion (by publishing industry standards) of media attention. He’s accompanied down endless midwestern highways, through parking lots, and into roadside diners by David Lipsky, a journalist and fellow novelist, who’s supposed to profile him for Rolling Stone. Though Wallace talks at length about being lonely and shy and anxious, the movie is largely about candy and male-bonding, with the occasional fight over a woman. Discussing the relative merits of Die Hard, Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) brandishes a pair of cherry Twizzlers at Jason Segel’s Wallace; they raid a grocery store for beer and marshmallows, before Wallace mainlines a packet of M&Ms, and later they belt out an Alanis Morissette song.

The bromance tropes in The End of the Tour make it difficult to see inside the characters. Which is peculiar since the movie starts as a kind of excavation of Wallace’s character by Lipsky, when he hears of Wallace’s suicide in 2008, and starts playing back his interview tapes. From here the plot is fairly straightforward: it’s 1996 and the Lipsky character has five days with the Wallace character to find out who he really is and to understand how he thinks. Often it feels like he asks the wrong questions, whether directly (“What’s it like to be the most talked about writer in the country?”) or through indirection and flattery (“Do you think being handsome has anything to do with success?”) “You’re famous,” he assures Wallace at one point, as though not being famous is the greatest insecurity a writer could have. He intrudes on Wallace in ways we’re used to intruding only on the famous, dutifully poking through his medicine cabinet at the first opportunity, and in another scene, darting from room to room with his dictaphone, frantically recording a list of Wallace’s personal items.

These questions and details are lifted straight from David Lipsky’s book of interviews with Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which was published in 2010. Almost all of the dialogue spoken by Segel and Eisenberg is in fact faithfully excerpted from it—yet the film misses something the book captures. It may be that it’s much more difficult to convey the sprawling dimensions of loneliness in a dialogue-driven movie than in writing. In Lipsky’s book, Wallace’s loneliness rings through his extemporaneous, linguistically convoluted and brilliant self-assessments: “I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the extent that it makes it difficult to be around other people,” he tells Lipsky within a day of meeting him. “For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me. It’s stressful and unpleasant or whatever.” And in his square-bracketed commentary on Wallace’s answers in the book, Lipsky emerges as an intuitive, sympathetic listener: “That word, ‘lonely’, which he’ll use a lot.”

When Segel gives the same speech about being shy in the movie, what you see is a demonstration of Wallace’s ever-ready intelligence and its transfixing power in conversation, rather a man who’s caught in perpetual conflict with himself. Conveying that intelligence is itself quite an achievement, and Segel, who made his career playing goofs in rom-coms, gives a brilliantly convincing performance of Wallace as a slouchy guy, living alone with his dogs and mountains of books. But the film isn’t good at making us see Wallace experiencing any of the ideas he talks about. We never see, for instance, other characters sharing a moment of connection that Wallace feels he can’t himself make. And the film is shot unimaginatively. If loneliness on screen requires cold, Resnais-like vistas, in the End of the Tour we get claustrophobic shots of two men in a car, two men on a plane, two men on a couch. When we see landscapes, they’re almost symbolically American: a freeway, or a gas station on the edge of a snowy field.

The End of the Tour’s emotional center is Lipsky. This world of close-ups is a fan’s dream. His fascination with Wallace, and his somewhat unhealthy and unrealistic rivalry with him, gives the film energy despite its visual blandness. Lipsky remembers Wallace’s quip about cigarettes—“brothers of the lung!” he calls them—and a few days later he tries a similar joke. “That sounds like something Dave would say,” a friend comments, to Lipsky’s delight and Wallace’s irritation. Those tensions escalate when Wallace tells him to stop hitting on his ex-girlfriend, a trust-shattering moment that serves as the film’s climax. One of the only truly haunting shots in the movie shows Lipsky and Wallace in their seats at a movie theater. As the whole audience gazes ahead, the camera lingers on Lipsky, who is staring at Wallace, seeing how long he can observe his subject without being noticed. 

This shift in focus from Wallace to Lipsky makes the movie much more watchable if you know nothing about Wallace or his writing; then again, it also won’t tell you much about the man himself. Despite featuring one of the most celebrated writers of the last two decades, The End of the Tour often feels shut tight inside the road trip genre. It is, like Sideways, or more recently, Steve Coogan’s The Trip, a story of two men who try to figure out their place in the world and their relation to each other, though this obviously matters to Lipsky much more than Wallace. Women feature mostly as a subject in male-bonding conversations. Of course, this is partly because the film is adapted from a book of interviews, which is, naturally, zoomed in on only two voices. But in a movie, where the Lipsky and Wallace characters must necessarily interact with other people, the absence of women is conspicuous. 

The false camaraderie of two buddies on the road—actually a reporter and his subject—is compacted by the movie’s dismissive treatment of women. Wallace confides in Lipsky: he thought he might get laid on his book tour, but his groupies weren’t insistent enough and he didn’t want to make the first move. He makes much of the fact that his handler for a bookstore appearance in Minneapolis is referred to as an “escort”—which, he says, makes him expect a “geisha,” who will “walk on your back and fuck your eyeballs out.” When she turns out to be a middle-aged woman with a schlocky sense of humor, both Wallace and Lipsky are shown walking a few steps behind her and sniggering at her jokes. They later have a joke at the expense of a supposedly-gullible clerk at the bookstore, when Wallace introduces Lipsky to her as “Mr. Boswell." Women are seen floating on the periphery of the cultural industries in this movie, but they don’t “get” the boys’ high cultural program, the one decided over the cherry Twizzlers. 

In his fiction, Wallace could imagine a world where women felt just as lonely and alienated as men. His very short story “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” tells an alternative road trip story that dramatizes the anxieties he described to Lipsky: 

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces. 

There wasn’t room for this kind of image in The End of the Tour, with its fidelity to the conversations Lipsky recorded nearly ten years ago. In a movie, you can’t just talk about interiority, you have to show it. For all the impressiveness and intellectual depth of The End of the Tour’s dialogue, faithfulness might be the film’s greatest weakness, especially when it comes to finding images that can match up to the writing Wallace left. There are other, better road trip stories. Wallace wrote one himself.