Straight Outta Normal: Six Thoughts on the David Foster Wallace Movie

FA review tag

Last Friday, the New York Times Sunday Styles page published “A Brief History of the Tough Star Profile,” reviewing notable celebrity press takedowns from Lillian Ross’ 1950 New Yorker piece on Ernest Hemingway, to Tiger Woods telling “puerile and sexist jokes” in GQ in 1997, to the most recent (and orders of magnitude less interesting) Esquire piece on Miles Teller. I don’t know who Teller is or why he’s famous, but he was quoted this month comparing his penis to a highball glass and being generally dickish. He’s probably more famous now because of it.

These kinds of profiles represent the extreme version of what David Foster Wallace was fixated on and deeply fearful of during five days he spent with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky in 1996. The possibility that Lipsky could pick and choose from hours of conversation to portray pretty much any Dave Wallace Rolling Stone wanted came up again and again while the two men were together. We know because, while Lipsky never ended up writing a profile, he ultimately chose to publish the vast majority of the conversation as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The book has since been made into the movie The End of the Tourwhich I had a chance to see this weekend. Rather than add to the many straightforward reviews done by people who do that better than I can, here’s what I want you to know:

The movie is really good. It’s especially good if you’re part of the group it was written for — a fan of Wallace who has read Infinite Jest — but I think it works even if you’ve never heard of Wallace or just have a vague sense of him and his writing. I will caution that if you are moved by the film to pick up Infinite Jest for the first time, then you absolutely should, but with awareness of what you will find. The novel’s premises, which get extensive and generally clear explanation in the movie, are buried in the book under 1000 pages of tennis school, AA meetings and wheelchair assassins. If you need help, we’re here for you.

It’s not a bio-pic. There’s a part in the film when Lipsky mentions that he wants to talk to Wallace’s parents to get background information. Wallace tells him not to. That’s pretty much how it goes here. Tour follows Wallace through a particular set of moments, and while there is plenty of context you can get elsewhere that probably enriches the experience, the movie is not about his life or even, really, his death. It is, like Infinite Jest, a look at the things we think will make us happy, and an exploration into why they might not be working.


It’s not really about Lipsky wanting to be Wallace. It’s easy to get the sense when watching the trailer that the story goes: Lipsky is desperate to be famous and Wallace drops some knowledge on him about what that really means and why it’s not fulfilling. The relationship between the two men was not nearly so narratively neat, and it’s a great credit to The End of the Tour that tension and awkwardness are there from the beginning to the very last moment the men are together. The issues themselves are broadened beyond “Why do you want to be a famous writer?” to reach into questions like “Why do we all believe that fame will make us happy?”

Segel’s performance is excellent. I’m a fan of Segel and have seen him in a lot of the silly stuff that preceded this movie. I was expecting to have to adjust to the idea of him portraying Wallace. But with his performance, and the skillful pacing of how they bring Wallace onto the screen, I didn’t even see him. To quote the friend who saw the movie with me:

“Jason Segel was the best part. Never made DFW too likable and was comfortable making him unlikable for long stretches. Soulful stuff, but also realistically awkward. Movie didn’t quite live up to the performance, in the end.

“Also, the set design was outstanding. Everything looked authentically shabby, but not in a showy way. Just real and kinda shitty.”

The music was good too.

The movie fails at something impossible. It can’t honestly capture David Foster Wallace and/or the complexities of his major novel and/or the complexities of his death. It seems to acknowledge how impossible it is to accomplish the first two and makes a good-faith effort to do the best it can with what it has.

The death is different. There are no explicit conclusions drawn about Wallace’s eventual suicide, which happened 12 years after the movie takes place. But you could easily walk away believing that Wallace killed himself because he was sad about America or something. As Wallace says at one point (I’m paraphrasing from memory) about a period of depression he went through, “I had been living this very American life where I thought if I achieved A and B and C then everything would be alright.” It feels like Wallace couldn’t find happiness in his monumental achievements, so he decided to end it all. In my estimation, that mistakes a symptom for the actual disease.

On the other hand, I’m not sure the film can really avoid implications about his death and still tell any kind of story. It hovers over everything, and makes it wrenchingly sad. Even off-hand lines, like Wallace coming home from the trip and telling his excited dogs he’d never leave them again brought to mind his sister envisioning his suicide, saying “David and his dogs, and it’s dark. I’m sure he kissed them on the mouth, and told them he was sorry.”

The “ending” was slightly off. The decision to close The End of the Tour with Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” was smart and beautiful. Whether or not David Foster Wallace ever actually went to a dance, syncing the song to slow-mo footage of him dancing, seemingly engaged in un-self-conscious cutting loose, was an interesting choice. And the wrong one, I think. It’s the only part of the movie that indulged the This is Water side of Wallace, implying a sense of “…happily ever after” to a story that has a deeply sad ending.

– Michael Moats



Filed under David Foster Wallace, DFW, Hooray Fiction!

2 Responses to Straight Outta Normal: Six Thoughts on the David Foster Wallace Movie

  1. Thanks for this. I’m going to see it this afternoon based on your recommendation.

  2. In fact, Miles Teller was the star of Ponsoldt’s previous film (The Spectacular Now).

Leave a Reply