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When "The End of the Tour" was announced, it seemed like a cruel joke. David Foster Wallace, the avant-garde fiction writer and essayist who committed suicide in 2008, had written and spoken at exhaustive length about the warping effects of visual culture, about all the subtle and tortuous ways that television and film can impact and emotionally manipulate us. Another obsession had been ambition — careerism and fame (to the extent that he knew it) were obviously sources of great pain and fascination for him. He was absurdly self-conscious, repulsed by his own need for mass approval, and didn't own a TV — not out of pretension, out of fear. So, to make a movie about him, much less a ponderous biopic starring Jason Segel (fresh off "The Muppets" and "How I Met Your Mother"), seemed like the bleakest of cosmic ironies, one final punishment from the universe for a man who had probably suffered enough. There was poor taste, and then there was this.
Now that the film is out, the narrative has shifted. It's not about Wallace at all, many critics have argued, but about writing, professional envy or the petty exploitations of magazine journalism. While it's true that you don't have to be familiar with his writing to follow it — just as you don't have know abstract math to follow the Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing biopics — to say "The End of the Tour" isn't about Wallace is just being stubborn. Based on a book-length interview transcript, the film is assembled from actual Wallace quotes (condensed, cherry-picked and buffed up for optimal poignancy) with one or two minor fictionalized incidents added for dramatic effect. Fans of Wallace's unusually absorbing interviews (YouTube videos of which have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, for good reason) will find the film's dialogue entirely familiar, if over-simplified and vaguely disappointing, like one of those Great Illustrated Classics books that tricks you into thinking you've experienced the real thing.
And unfortunately the dialogue is just about all there is on offer here. Segel does a competent Wallace impersonation, but it seems kind of silly — not quite as crass as it could have been, but close to it. By the last scene (which actually is as crass as it could have been) I was wishing it were more offensive. Or more anything. As is, it seems content to let its profundities (e.g., success doesn't necessarily buy happiness) carry it, and the result is mostly awkward and a little ghoulish, the literary fiction equivalent of the Tupac hologram.
Because I don't want this to seem overly mean-spirited, here's something nice: I liked the way Wallace's house looked. It seems somehow important to remember that a writer who won the MacArthur Genius Grant, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, who the L.A. Times called "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years," spent a good portion of his actual day-to-day life in a dumpy two-bedroom rental house in snow-covered Normal, Ill., subsisting on Pop-Tarts and McDonald's and dip. The filmmakers have done a commendable job of re-creating his clutter.
And as best as I can tell, that was basically the goal here: to recreate the writer's (literal and figurative) clutter. It's an odd sort of tribute, though. It's hard to overlook the fact that Wallace's family, friends and professional colleagues have all publicly denounced the movie. Maybe you don't care about that — I'm not convinced that you should — and maybe the film succeeds on its own limited terms. But between the goofy dancing and the earnest moralizing, it's hard to avoid the conclusion — the virtual certainty — that this film would be Wallace's worst nightmare.
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