In the mid-nineties, which is when the late novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) published the critically-acclaimed Infinite Jest, and “The End of the Tour” takes place, Wallace agreed to a Rolling Stone interview, though not without a great deal of ambivalence. Although it’s his idea, the reporter, a novelist of modest success and Wallace’s contemporary, David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has a stronger reaction to being the one to do this. Reading a hyperventilating review of David Foster Wallace’s latest book to his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky), he feels envy, even rage.
To make things worse, Jesse has the nagging suspicion that his girlfriend secretly prefers Wallace – and not just as a novelist. But in the end, intrigue wins out, and he persuades his skeptical editor (Ron Livingston) to let him drive out to Illinois in the dead of winter to interview the novelist, who shares his home with two rescue dogs and is teaching at a nearby college. As this is the pre-GPS era, he gets lost and attempts to contact Jason from a pay phone, breath steaming in the frigid air. Bad idea.
DFW, suspiciously: “Where did you get this number?”
DL, warily: “Your publicist gave it to me.”
DFW, even colder than the sub-zero temperature outside: “Well, then do me a favor and lose it.” Click.
One might predict from that exchange that the interview would not go well when Jesse finally shows up, but this doesn’t happen. They go inside and start to thaw – literally and otherwise.
Bon mots from the novelist:
On creating characters: “If you want your character to be funny and smart, have him say and do funny and smart things.”
On the Rolling Stone article: “I want to be in the article, but I don’t want it to make me look like someone who wants to be in Rolling Stone.”
On the Internet (remember this is in 1996): “It’s going to get better and better.” Meaning we’re going to be more and more tempted to spend all our time on it. And it’s going to be harder and harder to look away from our computer screens.
On the view from his home: “Thanks. I can’t take credit.”
This movie contains a lot of talking, as you might guess from a film structured around gathering material for an in-depth interview. Jason turns out to be a junk food junkie (when Jesse offers to take him someplace nice, he picks McDonald’s), so after foraging in a nearby convenience store, they settle in to talk. And talk. Jesse winds up staying over at Jason’s house (although the dogs are suspicious that he’s bunking there at first). He shadows Jason as he teaches a class, does a radio interview and a live reading (no Q&A period, thank you very much), then hangs out with several of Jason’s literary friends, with whom they go see a John Woo movie. Eventually, friction rears its ugly head, and they wind up arguing, not just debating. It’s clear from the beginning, that Jesse is looking for something – something he is not going to find, and Jason – well, he’s ambivalent about just about everything – he’s hyper-aware of the stereotype of the genius writer and wants to avoid being portrayed that way. Like Kurt Cobain, another Generation X artist that ended his life prematurely, he doesn’t want to be the “voice of a generation.” And Jesse eventually realizes he doesn’t want to be his idol either. It’s not a cheerful movie, but it exemplifies the saying, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”