The Un-Biopic: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace

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The End of the Tour, about the late literary master David Foster Wallace, deftly sidesteps hagiographic clichés. 

Since his suicide in 2008, David Foster Wallace’s status as the crown prince of postmodern literature has been all but written in stone. Every year, fresh crops of college initiates discover and come to worship his 1996 masterpiece, Infinite Jest. His nonfiction’s influence echoes across the internet in the chorus of bloggers who have adopted his idiosyncratic voice as their own. Thus, the writing of a literary biopic, the most thankless task in cinema, was not only inevitable; it was obligatory.

For all the A-list directors that one could see tilting at this windmill, the victor turned out to be up-and-comer James Ponsoldt, whose 2013 teen dramedy, The Spectacular Now, made him a refreshingly unassuming Sundance darling. Last January, he earned even louder raves at Sundance for The End of the Tour, his adaptation of the book by the journalist James Lipsky about a five-day road trip that Lipsky took with Wallace for a prospective magazine profile in the wake of Infinite Jest’s publication. With a typically intense Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel’s uncanny Wallace, the film upends tortured genius biopic clichés. Instead of watching novelist agonize over his Underwood, we see him and Lipsky cheering at dumb action movies, ransacking convenience-store shelves for junk food, and, in this deceptively casual intimacy, probing the fraught recesses of each other’s humanity.

“It’s Wallace in his own words, in a format he’s chosen,” Ponsoldt explains on the labyrinthine upper floor of the Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. For him, that’s what made Lipsky’s book the perfect approach to the thorny task of portraying an icon like Wallace. Ponsoldt knew too well what a cinematic sand trap the genre can be: “Cradle-to-the-grave biopics are not that interesting to me because they’re inherently reductive—105 minutes is not enough for how complicated and how contradictory human life is.” But by narrowing his focus to five well-documented days and depicting Wallace through Lipsky’s envious, admiring eyes, Ponsoldt found a way into the mind of the literary giant. Armed with Lipsky’s original tapes, and have consulted people who knew Wallace during that time, Ponsoldt wen to great lengths to get the specifics about Wallace right within the limited frame of Lipsky’s encounter. Still, both he and Segel relied on their own subjectivities to get at a larger emotional truth: “Taking someone’s essence—by its very nature, even if it claims to be direct cinema—there’s something deeply impressionistic about that,” says Ponsoldt. The End of the Tour is as much about how we view our heroes as it is about the heroes themselves.

Ponsoldt, a literary pack rat with more than 5,000 books at his Atwater Village home, in Los Angeles, got his start writing for an alternative weekly in Atlanta. His love of Joan Didion—whose ability to get subjects to open up made her legendary—clearly informed his appreciation of the gamesmanship between interviewer and interviewee. “They’re great sparring partners for each other,” Ponsoldt notes about Lipsky and Wallace, which enabled him to indulge his love of the chatty road-trip genre—think California Split and Withnail & I—where the verbal jousting provides the pyrotechnics. In other words, Ponsoldt says with a smile: “This is the road trip I wish I’d gone on.”

But what makes Ponsoldt’s film special—and what captures the spirit of Wallace’s work—is how it takes the humdrum geography of a Midwestern book tour as an essential terrain of mundane moments that yield profound insights. The goal wasn’t to romanticize further Wallace’s myth but to make his humanity immediate. “I’ve had people say, ‘Do you need to have read David Foster Wallace to see the move?’ If that’s the case,” says Ponsoldt as we walk to the exit, “then we have failed.”