A movie about David Foster Wallace was inevitable. A good one wasn't. Consider it a gift, then, that James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour reflects its subject so movingly.
The biopic opens with David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) receiving news of Wallace's suicide, then quickly jumps back to 1996, with Lipsky as an ascendant Rolling Stone reporter and marginally successful fiction writer who hears tell of a supposedly monumental novel called Infinite Jest.
He's reluctant to believe the hype, partially out of fear that a contemporary's talent could dwarf his own, but still pitches a story on Wallace to his editor once he's confirmed the book's quality. This is to be the first such profile of a young author written for the magazine in a decade. In order to make it worthwhile, he's to join the man of letters on the last leg of a book tour and be as probing as possible.
As with any biopic, The End of the Tour was a series of casting announcements before it existed as an actual movie, the most noteworthy of which was its unlikely leading man: Jason Segel, he of I Love You, Man and The Muppets. Rare is the indie project whose pre-production phase in any way resembles that of a superhero franchise, but casting a funny man as an imposingly intellectual figure proved as controversial as putting Heath Ledger in clown makeup.
It was also just as misplaced: Segel's performance makes you dread the fate awaiting Wallace even more than you already were. What's remarkable about this isn't that we've never seen this side of the actor before, but that we have.
Segel has always seemed the most sensitive of his frat-house ilk. Jonah Hill has landed more serious roles and Seth Rogen has starred in more hits. But whether in Jeff, Who Lives at Home or even the disarmingly sweet Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which Segel wrote), he's been the most willing to wear his heart on his sleeve. He's as emotionally naked here as he is physically in some of his prior performances.
The credit isn't his alone. Ponsoldt never exploits our knowledge of what will eventually become of his subject, nor does the filmmaker shoehorn in knowing clues. As Lipsky, Eisenberg plays more to type than his co-star and makes a strong counterbalance. The tentative early scenes between the two, in which Lipsky flies to Illinois to meet Wallace at his suburban home, resemble nothing so much as a platonic Before Sunrise, with the two engaging in one tangential conversation after another and quickly becoming chummy.
They bond over candy bars and a shared love of Die Hard, but even here there's tension as Wallace touches on the dark side of comfort food and disposable culture.
Eventually they get on each other's nerves. How could they not? Lipsky keeps getting pressured by his editor to ask his interviewee about a rumored heroin addiction, and gets jealous when his girlfriend spends 30 minutes talking to Wallace on the phone. He's so fixated on the man's talent that he hardly notices the problems he's meant to be investigating.
The two men's banter-turned-tension is not only the core of the film but the lion's share of it. The End of the Tour is quite literally a talkie, with little outward action beyond their endless conversations. That it flows so naturally is a testament not only to the power of tape recorders — though never published, Lipsky's interview served as the basis of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, of which this is an adaptation — but also to the chemistry between Segel and Eisenberg. Both benefit from being well-versed in this sort of role — Segel in hangout comedies featuring heavy use of improv, Eisenberg in the much more heavily scripted (by Aaron Sorkin, no less) The Social Network.
Though nothing new, the writer-as-celebrity remains a rare phenomenon. Few have embodied it quite like Wallace in the wake of his wildly ambitious second novel. Boasting an intimidating page count (1,079), reams of footnotes, and heady themes, the tome was so overtly intellectual that it managed to dip its toes into the mainstream rather than divert it.
To hear The End of the Tour tell it, the ensuing praise made the reserved wordsmith tremendously uncomfortable. The more scrutiny Wallace endures, the more he fears being revealed as a literary charlatan just waiting to be exposed.
He isn't, of course. Wallace speaks intelligently on a variety of subjects, less an undisciplined jack of all trades than a deep thinker with too many interests to list. As attention spans shorten and bite-sized media proliferates ever more, the level of attention this figure received seems even more unlikely than it did at the time. Perhaps not coincidentally, this dulling of the senses was part of what fascinated and disenchanted the man himself.
Being literary-famous puts Wallace on the precipice of actual fame, while the framing device puts him on the precipice of something much darker. Ponsoldt is nothing if not affectionate in the way he makes his subject's unassailable demons known to us without ever reducing Wallace to a list of problems or pop-psychology diagnoses.
He was a deeply complicated person, and the fact that The End of the Tour relies so heavily on actual transcripts effectively allows Wallace to tell his own story. He deserves nothing less.