Festival Watch, Sundance 2015: David Foster Wallace Has His Close Up

© Sundance Institution

James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour creates a humanizing portrait of an artist.

Every Sundance has that one film—the one you absolutely have to see, for which you’ll offer any sacrifice, around which you fit your whole schedule, and by which you seriously risk being disappointed. Sundance invariably defies expectations; pinning your hopes on one film is a precarious position. And yet, you can’t help yourself. This year, for me, that film was The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself—the memoir of his five day interview with the late crown prince of postmodern literature David Foster Wallace.  I was not disappointed.

In this age of digital writers, I’m far from alone in taking as touchstone David Foster Wallace, a protean talent whose brilliant, Byzantine sentences cast a long shadow over contemporary prose. Infinite Jest is of course his densely annotated book-stop masterpiece; but even his more “digestible” pieces, short stories and essays like Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again are incalculably influential (want a good introduction? Pick up Oblivion). Of course, we have his clarion call voice, clear and intoxicating in its tangled syntax. What need then for a fan “biopic?” Why indulge in cinematic voyeurism; what more is there that Wallace didn’t say perfectly well when he had the gifts of solitude and heart-breaking self-consciousness with which to polish his words? What remains to be said?

A lot, it turns out. Ponsoldt is Sundance’s latest darling; starting with Smashed and then The Spectacular Now, he’s continually wowed Park City audiences over the past few years. His filmmaking develops a unique humanism in leaps and bounds—one that feels universal even as it’s clearly couched in his own subjectivity. With The End of the Tour he’s reached new heights: an admittedly subjective vision of David Foster Wallace that rings true, even though it’s not quite authorized—as if being fully blessed by the Wallace estate might have compromised his film’s capacity for honesty. Of course, it helps that he cast the role perfectly: Jason Segel qua Wallace has an Oscar-worthy performance here. Neither he nor Ponsoldt pretends their take on Wallace is the ultimate truth by any stretch. And yet it feels so true. Simple, funny, squirm-inducing and penetrating, The End of the Tour demolishes the myth of the creative genius and finds in its wreckage something far more satisfying: a human being.

That’s not to say The End of the Tour reduces David Foster Wallace to an easily contained Everyman by film’s end. But it offers hints of how one special individual’s common, universal experiences could result in literature that staggers the mind even today. Again, a great deal of credit goes to Segel; and Lipsky’s book, even if it’s just one man’s take, clearly offered a lot of grist for the mill. But mostly, it’s just fun (and moving) to watch Eisenberg and Segel joust in a cheap rental as they attempt that most impossible of labors: getting another person to show you who they really are. There were a few other films I saw today but The End of the Tour remained the topic of conversation wherever I went: from the screening lines, to crowded main street, to the Mississippi Grind premiere party, while the young party people of Sundance danced the night away to blaring music—everyone of us escaping ourselves in an unexpected, unintentional but totally meaningful echo of The End of the Tour’s closing shot.

For more from Sundance 2015:

Read a review of Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold and other documentaries from the festival »
Read a review of Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, plus standouts in the Next category »