Jason Segel seriously shakes up his on-screen image in “The End of the Tour,” and whatever other fallout that might entail, it could get him nominated for an Oscar. So completely does Segel disappear into the role of David Foster Wallace, a writer who is widely considered the Hemingway of his generation, that you forget this is an actor primarily known for lightweight comedy, and completely accept that you’re in the company of a literary genius. This is certainly Segel’s best work since “Freaks and Geeks,” and possibly his best work ever.
Not a conventional biopic (thank God), “The End of the Tour” recreates five days spent with Wallace by “Rolling Stone” writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), twelve years before Wallace’s suicide at the age of 46. Occasionally an interview of a famous person will have a moment where some aspect of the subject’s inner self is revealed in a sudden, lightbulb moment of clarity, not necessarily in response to a question. Just as occasionally a relationship with another person presents a moment where a person we know is unexpectedly laid bare to us. “The End of the Tour” is filled with moments like that.
Director James Ponsoldt is very, very good at finding those moments (his last film, “Smashed,” a portrait of an alcoholic schoolteacher, was a devastating character study). It doesn’t hurt that the screenplay he’s directing, by playwright Donald Margulies, is smart and perceptive, and brings insight into the way writers think. Early in the movie, Eisenberg’s Lipsky says that reading Wallace is like feeling “your eyelids pulled open.” When Lipsky, at his girlfriend’s goading, begins reading Wallace’s magnum opus “Infinite Jest,” he suddenly looks up from the huge volume and mutters “S**t.” It’s not the book he’s talking about. It’s a reaction any writer will recognize – the wonderful and terrible recognition that they’re reading something better than anything of their own. And so of course Lipsky is compelled to seek an interview with Wallace, and after badgering his editors at “Rolling Stone” into letting him do the piece, gets to ride with him on the end of the novelist’s promotional tour for “Infinite Jest.”
The story that ensues is not inherently cinematic in the conventional sense. It’s incredibly dialogue-heavy for a modern movie, for one thing. But the dialogue here, taken directly from the transcripts of Lipsky’s tape recordings, is stunning. Wallace, for all his midwestern, folksy, self-effacing, shy mannerisms, speaks in magnificently literary terms. The themes that emerge – envy, trust, or the lack of it, the solitude and even loneliness of writing – are not usually the stuff of movies, and yet are completely engrossing here.
“The End of the Tour” masquerades effectively as a road movie. After the opening scenes in Lipsky’s urbane New York City environment, which looks like a writer’s world, the movie shifts to the flat snowscape outside Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace lives with two large, goofy dogs in a completely undistinguished ranch house. There is a vivid contrast physically between the wiry Lipsky and the bearlike Wallace, and even Wallace’s cluttered, untidy house is a contrast to the studied Bohemianism of Lipsky’s New York City apartment. The two seem wary of each other at first. Lipsky seems nervous and Wallace suggests that he’d like to write a profile on the people who have tried to profile him. Wallace protests, more than once, that he doesn’t think Lipsky believes a word he says, and clearly he wants him to, although at times he seems as cagey as he is candid. Lipsky, almost needless to say, is awed by, and envious of, Wallace. But as they spend hours on the road together, eating in diners, smoking cartons of cigarettes and binging on junk food, a relationship starts to form, until it’s shaken by Lipsky’s tendency to overstep borders and Wallace backs away. Ponsoldt, an astute observer of human imperfections, is a master of presenting without judgment. It is the tenuous relationship between the two men that is the crux and core of the story far more than anything else on the road.
This is basically a two-man show, although a handful of actors shine in small roles: Anna Chlumsky as Lipsky’s girlfriend, Mickey Sumner as Wallace’s former grad school girlfriend, Mamie Gummer as a longtime friend, and Joan Cusack as Wallace’s driver on the last leg of his promotional tour.
In the old days of Hollywood, the term “rug show” was used to describe a movie that took place entirely on sets. “The End of the Tour” could easily have become a floormat show. Jakob Ihre’s elegant cinematography, which among other things finds an icy visual poetry in the bleak, snowy midwestern flatlands, helps keep “The End of the Tour” from being a completely claustrophobic experience.
“The End of the Tour” never loses sight of the fact that Wallace died too young, and by his own hand. That fact has a tendency to make him larger than life, and he clearly looms that way to Lipsky. Segel, whether he embodies something like the real Wallace or not, is certainly believable. His Wallace is appropriately modest and self-effacing, and somewhat evasive. The character, after all, has agreed to be interviewed by a major publication with virtually no track record for profiling authors. And certainly he has to understand that an interviewer, as surely as a torturer, is trying to get information, no matter how damaging, from his subject. Eisenberg plays Lipsky like a Bryce Dallas Howard character. This isn’t the one the audience is going to like.
But we need him to be sneaky, so that we see the Topol in the medicine cabinet – Wallace does smoke when no one’s around. And we need to see that his writing room is dark and shut off from the world. That revelation reminds us of something critical about writers and writing. It is perverse indeed to crave the limelight for something done in solitude, even loneliness.
“The End of the Tour” is currently playing at The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Spectrum 8 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.