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The End of the Tour

Talky movies are never big box office. The famous cult classic My Dinner with Andre (1981) grossed a whopping $5.2M (that’s right, million, not billion) and even in 1981, that was paltry.

This movie is not only almost all talk, it records a five-day conversation between David Foster Wallace, a revered novelist who has been dead for six years, and David Lipsky, a novelist and journalist who, though well-received, is hardly a household name.

OK, so the film has everything going against it. And it turns out to be one of the most fascinating movies of this year. Wallace may be best known nowadays for a commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College, his alma mater, in 2005. In it, he moves from mild cynicism about commencement speeches to an impassioned plea to the graduates of the famous liberal arts school to face their everyday existence, always choosing to think humbly about those who get in their way, who seem more angry or intolerant or even uneducated or unfortunate than they are. He essentially teaches them there really are no atheists and that the god most often worshipped is the self.

This demeanor, this tragic humility, of the suicide victim creates an aching empathy in the viewer of the film. I could not take my eyes off Jason Siegel, who plays Wallace with such grace and commitment that he completely disappears into the role. Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the role of Lipsky, sent by Rolling Stone to go with Wallace on the last five days of his book tour for the one novel Wallace ever produced, the 1,076 page Infinite Jest, is very good, but essentially as the foil to Wallace’s charismatic ramblings about fame and success and life.

They drive and fly together, sometimes sharing the screen with two women who latch onto them after a book signing, but mostly they talk, and the talk never ceases to be interesting. It ranges from the banal (imagining Alanis Morissette eating a bologna sandwich) to the sublime (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), but it is always searching, searching for a new phrasing, or a new idea, or both. Lipsky, a considerably lesser light as a novelist, but actually with some accomplishment himself, comes off as the friend, who simply wants to listen and learn. Wallace seems to want this, then not to want it; he is a complex bag of emotions and viewpoints, and that complexity, darting and feinting all over the conversational map is what carries the movie, until Lipsky gets in his rental and drives away.

The End of the Tour says a lot about the kinds of things Wallace wrote about and talked about in his speech at Kenyon, elements embedded in our society that are eating away at it, discomforting us, even as they tempt us to indulgence, experiences like alienation, loneliness, self-centeredness, consumerism. In his humility, he rejected these as meaningless and devoid of satisfaction, but he could never find anything to replace them that would both affirm his humility, yet give him enjoyment in the now.

A deep tragedy, and it will make your heart ache for a generation striving to find its way.

Drew Trotter

September 2, 2015

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