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‘Tour’ offers a compelling visit with David Foster Wallace

The End of the Tour opens today at the local Laemmle’s, offering literary buffs the chance to squeeze into the diner booth with David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace as they talk about everything from depression to sex to Alanis Morissette. 

The movie hones in on five days in 1996 when Lipsky interviewed Wallace—then on a book tour promoting his epic novel Infinite Jest—for a Rolling Stone article.

Wallace is considered by many to be among the world’s greatest writers, if one of its more challenging ones.

A New York Times obit described him as “a maximalist, exhibiting in his work a huge, even manic curiosity—about the physical world, about the much larger universe of human feelings and about the complexity of living in America at the end of the 20th century.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the writer, you should know he has a couple of Claremont connections, one boast-worthy and another merely sad. Wallace was a professor at Pomona College for a time. And in 2009, he hanged himself at his Claremont home at the age of 46.

David Foster Wallace lives again in The End of the Tour, with actor Jason Segel donning his trademark bandanna and channeling his unblinking insights and acrobatic wit. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky.

Mr. Lipsky was 30 at the time of the interview, and more than slightly awed by Wallace’s talent and success. While he was press-wary, Wallace, then 34, welcomed Lipsky as a friend and roommate, at one point insisting to the younger writer that, “Mi Pop Tart es su Pop Tart.” 

The close-quarters communion was a life-changing experience.

“I had loved going on that trip, getting the chance to talk to someone who was my favorite writer,” Mr. Lipsky told the COURIER. “I had been reading David and now I had this great chance to be sitting in his house, seeing where he wrote and finding out what he loved to read and what movies he loved.”

The Rolling Stone piece was shelved at the time but after Wallace’s death, Mr. Lipsky took out the tape recorder and returned to those hours of conversation. The result is the 2009 Rolling Stone article, “The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace,” which earned the National Magazine Award in 2009. The article  evolved to become Lipsky’s 2010 memoir, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.

A few people, out of churlishness or posthumous concern for Wallace’s cherished privacy, insist the book and subsequent movie are cynically trading in on Wallace’s fame.

However, as Lipsky reminds Wallace in The End of the Tour, he agreed to the interview. And most readers view his account as a heartfelt and valuable glimpse into the mind of a genius. On its release, the Atlantic Monthly called the book “far-reaching, insightful, very funny, profound, surprising, and awfully human.”

Lipsky had his own qualms about discussing his time with Wallace. The producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” though, convinced him to join a broadcast about David Foster Wallace that aired shortly after his death.

“What the producer explained to me is that there’s a real risk when someone dies [by their own hand] that people will read their work looking for clues or reasons why they committed suicide—that they’ll read the work with gray glasses on,” Mr. Lipsky said. “I know he’s an incredible person to read, completely awake and electric.”

Like the book, The End of the Tour follows two men hanging out and talking, whether their exchanges take place in a rental car, while loading up on junk food at a convenience store, in a darkened theater showing the explosion-heavy Broken Arrow or in the food court of an overblown shopping mall. Despite lacking a blockbuster plot trajectory, the film beguiles as an account of what Mr. Lipsky calls “a really smart person who has ruminated over…things and then found a way to say it out loud.”

When director James Ponsoldt was casting the film, Mr. Lipsky had a huge emotional stake in who was selected to play Wallace. The decision to cast Jason Segel worried some purists because the actor is best known for comedic roles, with familiar endeavors including a longstanding part on the sit-com How I Met Your Mother and a job acting alongside the Muppets.

Mr. Lipsky, however, sensed it was a good choice. He felt it was important that he and Wallace be played by writers. He points out that Segel writes his own movies and has even tackled a novel for kids, while Jesse Eisenberg has two plays under his belt.

It wasn’t until the film was in the can, however, that Mr. Lipsky realized how inspired the choice was.

“I was doing an interview with Jason on NPR and they were playing the audio from when David and I were driving around,” he said. “They began playing a clip from the movie and my first thought was, that’s when Dave and I were at Denny’s. Jason got his voice and he also got the tremendous intelligence behind his voice.”

Above everything, Lipsky is a fan of Wallace. A professor at Cornell, he teaches Infinite Jest, helping students get over the daunting fact that the book is more than 1,000 dense pages and discover “that it’s an extraordinary novel.”

Critics are hailing The End of the Tour as extraordinary as well. Mr. Lipsky is happy with the film, too.

“What I love about the movie is one of the things I wanted to get in the book. It’s full of life,” he said. 

Wallace was “fully awake,” Mr. Lipsky reiterated, and when you are awake, it makes you “charming and alive and electric to be with.”

And for a wordsmith, there’s nothing like the chance to spend time with a literary hero. 

“If you really love a writer, you wish you could call them on the phone and ask them about everything in the world. And all of a sudden, there I was.”

Showings for The End of the Tour, which opens today at the Laemmle’s Claremont 5, are at 1:40, 4:30, 7:30 and 10:15 p.m. For information, call (909) 621-5500.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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