Glenn Kenny, the critic and former Premiere editor immortalized as “Dick Filth” in David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” has made no secret of his disdain for “The End of the Tour,” which adapts Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s book-length account of the five days he spent with Wallace on the “Infinite Jest” book tour. (Kenny outlines their relationship in a 2008 interview conducted after Wallace’s death.) It’s not just that Wallace made clear while he was alive that he’d never want to be mythologized on screen, or that his estate, headed by his widow, Karen Green, has strenuously objected to the film’s existence, or even that Jason Segel’s DFW doesn’t resemble even slightly the man who became Kenny’s friend. As Kenny elaborates in a piece for The Guardian — the first time he’s written professionally about his friendship with Wallace — what turned his initial disdain to outright contempt is the quality of Segel’s peformance, and the way both he and the film as a whole exploit every opportunity to foreshadow Wallace’s 2008 suicide.
In my own film criticism I’ve often defended work that comes up short on historical accuracy, insisting that each picture is a circumscribed world in and of itself, for better or worse. This posture of detachment took went out the window the first time I saw the movie. It follows fictionalised versions of Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (played by Jason Segel) over a five-day period in 1996, bookended by scenes set in 2008 in which Lipsky’s character reflects on Wallace’s death and legacy. And the in many ways very conventional independent film left me so angry I actually had trouble sleeping the night I saw it. I lay awake obsessing over the best phrase that could sum up Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace. I came up with “ghoulish self-aggrandizement.” For me, it recalls a line from a Captain Beefheart song: “I think of those people that ride on my bones.”
When I try to look at the picture from a less personal perspective, eg, as a movie about two bro-ish dudes in the 90s doing Writer Stuff, and then years later one of them kills himself, “The End of the Tour” is still lacking. As is Segel’s performance. Far from being a “channeling” of Wallace, as some have called it, Segel’s performance is, to me, more of a feast of Heavy Indicating. A tic here, a tic there. Much brow furrowing. Even when the camera captures him from behind, you can see him thinking really hard about what it’s like to be such a tortured genius.Wallace the artist and Wallace the conversationalist take a distant back seat to Wallace the eventual suicide. Even when he’s cracking wise, there’s no light or lightness to the character. When uttering lines like “I’d rather be dead” or “I’m not so sure you want to be me”, Segel might as well be nudging the viewer in the ribs. He, and the movie, insists that suicide loomed over everything Wallace did a full 12 years before the end.
Kenny makes no bones about the fact that his feelings about “The End of the Tour” are personal; in a preamble to the Guardian piece at his personal blog, he admits, “I hope that the phrase ‘ghoulish self-aggrandizement’ sticks like shit to the bottom of Jason Segel’s shoe throughout his shitty Oscar campaign.” For me, at least, “Tour” is most interesting as a film about Lipsky, or rather the venal instincts that drive a Lipsky-type character, since I don’t know and don’t care how accurate Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in the role is. In a way, there’s something fitting about a movie that depicts journalists, not entirely inaccurately, as vampiric monsters being itself a tad monstrous.
But those who come to the movie expecting insight into Wallace and the complexity of his oeuvre will flinch at Kenny’s suggestion that it’s “a movie for those people who cherish ‘This Is Water’ as the new ‘Wear Sunscreen: A Primer For Life.” Critics reflexively dismiss concerns raised by those with personal knowledge of biopic subjects as attempts to set their own agendas, and often, as with the complaints lodged by LBJ partisans against “Selma,” they are. But hearing it from their own side of the aisle, and put forth with as much anger and eloquence as Kenny does, should give them pause, too.