Trainwreck, The End of the Tour, and the Complicated Bond Between Reporter and Subject

Photo: Universal Pictures and A24

Coincidentally, two films currently in theaters are about journalists writing magazine profiles. In one of them, the writer and subject have stimulating and sometimes antagonistic philosophical discussions about the nature of art, fame, and human identity. In the other, the writer and subject have sex, break off their affair for professional reasons, but then (spoiler!) end up falling in love anyway. One of these writers is a man and the other is a woman. Knowing what you do about how Hollywood movies work, I’ll let you take a wild guess which is which.

To be fair, these are two ridiculously simplified sketches of two movies I actually like quite a bit: James Ponsoldt’s David Foster Wallace homage The End of the Tour (which opens this weekend in New York) and the Judd Apatow–directed, Amy Schumer–penned Trainwreck. It’s perhaps extra unfair to Trainwreck, which in its most inspired moments deflates the antiquated logic of the rom-com (even if, in its most Apatovian moments, it also ends up succumbing to it).

Like Trainwreck, The End of the Tour is a film that’s a little itchy in its own skin — and that’s what makes it work, because it’s about Wallace, a man who was a little itchy in his own skin, too. Based on the 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Tour is about the Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played with magnificent twitchiness by Jesse Eisenberg), who’s landed the assignment to interview the most celebrated novelist of his generation, David Foster Wallace (a hauntingly good Jason Segel, all Midwestern vowels and self-doubting logorrhea). It is, mercifully, not a self-important biopic so much as a tightly focused vignette, zooming in on the relationship between these two men.

It’s also the most honest movie I’ve ever seen about that strange interpersonal transaction that happens when someone spends time with another person for the sole purpose of writing a magazine story about him — a situation to which I’m no stranger. The End of the Tour is a very good movie, but it’s also one of those movies that’s probably doomed to be overpraised by writers because it casts our interior lives in such a flatteringly grandiose light — the same way the Screen Actors Guild couldn’t give enough awards to Birdman.

Given my admitted professional sympathy for its protagonist, not to mention my die-hard Wallace fandom (no celebrity death before or since has rattled me more deeply than his 2008 suicide, even though I know he’d turn over in his grave to hear me call him a “celebrity”), I couldn’t help picturing myself in Lipsky’s shoes. But also … I couldn’t, exactly. So much of the film is about the struggle to overcome the inherent awkwardness of interviewing someone and to establish the kind of genuine, empathic bond that, paradoxically, gives you access to all the best dirt on them. (As Joan Didion says, writers are always selling somebody out.)

In one scene, shortly before Wallace graciously offers to let Lipsky stay overnight in his guest room, the journalist goes to the bathroom and runs the sink on high so Wallace can’t hear him rifling through his medicine cabinet. Wallace is at first skeptical of Lipsky, but he eventually earns his trust, basically by bro-ing down with him. They chew tobacco together. They make late-night junk-food runs. They talk about girls. Not unlike Schumer’s character in Trainwreck, Lipsky’s relationship with Wallace crosses the line and becomes something a little too intimate for comfort, veering decidedly into bromance territory. Whether intentional or not, the film very subtly asserts that Lipsky was able to crack Wallace — eventually getting him to talk candidly about sex, marriage, and loneliness — because at the end of the day they were just two dudes talking to each other about dude things, man. During one particular conversation, when Wallace sheepishly admits that he wouldn’t mind getting laid on his book tour, I wondered if or how the scene would have played differently had the interviewer been a (straight, single) woman. Then I realized I couldn’t even picture it.

I’m not suggesting Wallace would have made a pass at her, and I’m not suggesting he wouldn’t have opened up to her. I actually think there’s a good chance that the interview and the film would have been more interesting had the writer been a woman, because a person so adept in describing the unspoken social dynamics as Wallace probably would have had something interesting and uncomfortably honest to say about why he wasn’t making a pass at her, or why he was or wasn’t opening up. All I’m saying is that it would have been a very different story than what we’re used to seeing on screen. The End of the Tour reminded me of all the subtle reasons why a female writer’s experience of reporting this story (were she even assigned it in the first place) would be different from a man’s. I both related to this movie deeply and yet felt alienated by it on almost every frame.

I’ve interviewed men, women, and people who identify as neither. Those details are only apparent in that awkward dance toward making a real connection; once you settle into a conversation with a person (male or female; famous or unfamous) the particulars fall away and you just see each other as people. That’s the moment any journalist is striving for, and the one that The End of the Tour muses on so dizzingly and compellingly. But as I’m sure a lot of my female colleagues would agree, getting there is a different game when you’re a woman. Last night, I went to an event where my friend and fellow music writer Amanda Petrusich read from her recent book Do Not Sell at Any Price, which is about the nearly 100 percent male subculture of 78 RPM record collectors. She spoke candidly about how difficult it was to ingratiate herself into this world and to earn the trust of these older men who were skeptical of her knowledge, her intentions, and, yes, her gender. Her book is a testament to how well she cleared that hurdle, but it was refreshing to hear her talk so honestly about this particular challenge.

I’m not saying that Trainwreck is actually suggesting that female journalists can get their subjects to open up by sleeping with them. As I’ve written before, Schumer is subversive in some ways and conventional in others, but she’s self-aware enough to know that she cannot possibly be expected to speak for all women — we would never presume that one male character in a movie speaks for all men in a given profession. Trainwreck is a very different kind of film than The End of the Tour, and it also doesn’t feel like it is particularly “about” journalism and writing.

Still, even if this kind of female journalist is obviously meant to be a caricature, we have to recognize that these representations have a cumulative effect. (The Wall Street Journal recently compiled “A Brief History of Journalists Who Sleep With Their Subjects in Film,” which included semi-recent fare like Top Five, Man of Steel, and Scoop. Every reporter character on the list is female.) Much more damaging than Trainwreck is the portrayal of female journalists in House of Cards, particularly the first season, when the intrepid young writer Zoe Barnes regularly trades sex for scoops and is at one point actually told by her female mentor, “I used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story.” We can laugh these kinds of stereotypes off as campy clichés, but they linger in the cultural imagination. The End of the Tour has stuck with me, but it feels like another reminder that, in American films at least, the reporter characters who get to ask life’s biggest questions still tend to be men.