In 1996, shortly after the publication of the bullet-stoppingly thick book Infinite Jest, a Rolling Stone contributing editor named David Lipsky pitched a profile on the freshly coronated greatest-novelist-of-his-generation, David Foster Wallace. The reporter flew out to Bloomington, Illinois, to join the literary star on the last stop of his book tour in Minneapolis; for five days, the two Davids binged on junk food, smoked dozens of cigarettes and shot the shit. They also argued endlessly over the dynamics of the traditional give-take relationship between interviewer and interviewee overall, and whether a private man obsessed with solitude would be capable of truly opening up. The piece was never filed or finished. After Wallace’s death in 2008, Lipsky published Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript-cum-road-trip-tale of his time spent with the him. It’s considered one of the most insightful pieces on the author ever written.
Part two-man play, part psychological profile of a professional profiler and part portrait of a passive-aggressive dick-measuring contest, The End of the Tour is James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Lipsky’s reminiscences, one that somehow manages to transcend casting concerns and a chat-athon structure. It was the former in particular that originally had everyone on high alert: No one took issue with Jesse Eisenberg as the Rolling Stone scribe, with the Social Network star playing Lipsky as a needling, competitive beta-male beset by insecurity — in short, a Jesse Eisenberg character. After it was announced that Jason Segel, bromance icon extraordinaire, was the Man Who Would Be Foster Wallace, certain quadrants of the Internet acted as if he’d just landed the role of Batman. Everyone who was the least bit protective of the author’s legacy appeared to be seconds away from declaring a fatwa.
The hand-wringing may now stop: If Segel doesn’t exactly go Raging Bull-transformative in playing the Infinite Jest-er, he also doesn’t portray Wallace as though he’s gliding through Sex Tape Part 2. Done up in a DFW uniform — the round granny spectacles, the bandana-and-ponytail combo, the layers upon layers of sweatshirts — and putting his shambling bulk to good use, the actor dials everything down to a series of ultrasensitive stops and starts. If that description sounds reductive, it isn’t; by focusing on the the writer’s defensive hesitancies and sudden bursts of intellectual thrust-parries, Segel comes close to nailing what Wallace himself referred to as the blend of alpha-ego and shy loserdom that characterizes a lonely superwriter. Though the dude has done his homework (in the post-premiere Q&A, Segel said he listened to tons of tapes, studied interviews and had some “book nerd” friends pore through the author’s work with him), he’s not doing an impersonation. It’s a performance.
Ultimately, despite the fact that the story focuses on these two specific figures, one of which is towering, The End of the Tour isn’t really about Lipsky and Wallace per se. Yes, like the reporter’s book, it does offer a glimpse into the novelist’s personality, neuroses and ambivalence about fame. Instead, it becomes a movie about what happens when you succeed and find it wanting, as well as wanting to succeed more while someone else hits the stratosphere. (Lipsky had just published his novel The Art Fair to modest acclaim; a scene of Eisenberg sitting in a spare room filled with Wallace’s books reeks with professional envy.) Even more, it’s hellbent on testing out Janet Malcolm’s notion that “every journalist…knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” You could hear gasps of recognition, some of it shameful, from the press corps when Eisenberg deftly drops a bombshell question about being hospitalized. Or when an editor tells the scribe to keep pushing about the heroin rumors. Or, in a stand-out scene, when the reporter starts describing the writer’s cluttered apartment into his recorder. Hands do not always remain bloodless or clean.
Ponsoldt has a tendency to do wonders with actors and take left turns with material that, in other hands, comes off as clichéd or hackneyed — the addiction drama (Smashed), say, or the coming-of-age story (The Spectacular Now). In a weird way, this is his attempt at tackling a buddy comedy, albeit one that’s closer to My Dinner With Andre than a Judd Apatow joint. (My McDonalds With David?) The inquisitor keeps saying he doesn’t believe his subject is being truthful; the interviewee keeps countering that the journalist will go back and shape this article any way he likes, so what does it matter. They both know the other is right. Round and round they tango, neither one of them getting to lead for long. In the end, nothing gets printed and both of them still benefit from the transaction in ways they can’t even seem to fathom.
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