A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Directed by James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now"), "The End of the Tour" might fit well on a double bill with "Amadeus," another film about a genius and a lesser artist who basks in his aura. Of course, the setting is very different, and the stakes are much lower—"Tour" is a fictionalized account of the week-and-a-half that Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent following the late David Foster Wallace as he toured to promote his doorstop-sized masterpiece "Infinite Jest"—but it's still the story of a competent but unremarkable creative person observing brilliance up close, feeding on it, reveling in it and resenting it.
It is also certainly one of cinema's finest explorations of an incredibly specific dynamic—that of the cultural giant and the reporter who fantasizes about one day being as great as his subject, and in the same field. What it definitely isn't is a biography of David Foster Wallace, much less a celebration of his work and worldview. Whether that proves a deal breaker, a bonus, or a non-factor for viewers will depend on what they want out of this movie.
"The End of the Tour" is not really about Wallace (Jason Segel), although he's the other major character. It starts with Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) expressing amazement (but really jealousy) over a rave review of "Infinite Jest" in New York magazine, a moment that sparks his obsession with Wallace. It ultimately leaves us thinking about Lipsky's feelings and career trajectory, and whether he feels any guilt about using his brief association with Wallace to further his own career as a writer of books. At this point in his life, Lipsky has had just one volume published, a novel that few people bought and fewer read; after some hesitation, he foists it on Wallace while visiting him at the University of Illinois during a punishingly icy winter.
The screenplay by Donald Margulies spends most of its time and energy observing a dance. One dancer is Lipsky. He only got Rolling Stone to pay for his rock-star style profile of a novelist by agreeing to ask Wallace about the rumors that he uses heroin, and his motivations for doing the story are, to put it mildly, less than noble. The other dancer is Wallace. His fiction and nonfiction were partly concerned with the meaning of the word "authenticity," and how the social rituals and technology and economic structure of modern life created false intimacies that Wallace was determined to reject.