The New David Foster Wallace Movie Would Probably Make David Foster Wallace Really Uncomfortable

The film starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg takes a stab at dramatizing the famously perceptive—and persnickety—literary heavyweight.

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Aug 3 2015, 8:30pm

Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in 'The End of the Tour.' Photo courtesy of A24 Films

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The posthumous David Foster Wallace industry churns on: In the seven years since his death, various publishing interests have seen fit to release an unfinished novel, an essay collection, a commencement speech, his collected recordings, and his honors thesis. And that's not even including the volumes about Wallace, which have proliferated to the point where one has gotten a film adaptation: The End of the Tour, which is directed by James Ponsoldt and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel as David Lipsky and Wallace. The film is based heavily on Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an annotated transcript of interview recordings for his aborted Rolling Stone profile of Wallace—essentially a book-length interview, conducted over several days during the 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

No matter how flattering or accurate (or otherwise), it's clear Wallace would've preferred to have control. Both in Lipsky's book and Ponsoldt's film, he tirelessly edits and self-edits on the fly, switching off the tape recorder [1] to rehearse his thoughts, specifying what Lipsky can and can't include, humbling himself while subtly heading off any negative spin: "You could make me look like a real dick if you wanted to print this." Unlike the book, the movie is not a raw conversation, where Wallace is on more or less equal footing with Lipsky. Rather, it takes big editorial liberties, reframing the dialogue so that candid, friendly chitchat gets reimagined as tense bickering. A typical example comes from one of Lipsky's unvoiced observations in the book: "You don't crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author is a regular guy. You do it because he's brilliant, because you want him to be brilliant." The film has Lipsky not only speak this thought aloud, but angrily add, "So who the fuck do you think you're kidding?" Another unnecessary addition has Lipsky flirting with Wallace's ex, causing Wallace to get testy and jealous: "Stay away from her, OK?"

To borrow a DFW pet phrase, these little "French curls" of drama might have made the real Wallace cringe, but anyone who cares enough to have read Infinite Jest, or to watch a biopic of its author, isn't likely to mistake the Hollywood DFW for the real deal. On this score, too, Wallace's words pierce the veil, in a scene where his fictional avatar chides the fictional Lipsky for buying into the temptations of fame: "This is nice, but this is not real."

The End of the Tour is in theaters nationwide.

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[1] That tape recorder is a vital presence in the movie: Not only does it represent Lipsky's agenda as a reporter, but whenever it's running, it functions like cinematic quotation marks, indicating the dialogue as something adapted from the book, if not quite word-for-word.

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