Where’s the drama and, hell, the laughs in the nonspectacle of two writers talking with and at each other? For a riveting answer, check out The End of the Tour. The film is based on the 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky. Over five days in 1996, Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) interviewed celebrated novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, like you’ve never seen him before). It was the end of Wallace’s tour for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. It wasn’t until after the depression-plagued Wallace hanged himself in 2008 that Lipsky used the material in a story that won a National Magazine Award and became the basis for his book. Suicide hangs over the movie as it did the book, scrambling our thoughts and perhaps helping us achieve a greater understanding.
Nothing and everything happen in the movie. Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), working from a fluid script by playwright Donald Margulies, does justice to the book without compromising his film. This is no biopic. The story takes place when the bandanna-wearing Wallace was at the peak of his success and trying in his own shambling, humane way to deal with it.
From the moment Lipsky, played with seductive intelligence and a secret smile by Eisenberg, arrives at Wallace’s bachelor cave in snowbound Bloomington, Illinois, the scene is set for mesmerizing mind games. The more Lipsky pushes — his editor (Ron Livingston) wants details of the author’s alleged heroin addiction — the warier Wallace becomes.
So we watch as Lipsky and Wallace travel by car, bus and jet trying to suss each other out, to touch a nerve, to form a bond. In Minneapolis, they eat junk food and argue pop culture. Then, at dinner with Wallace’s pal Julie (Mamie Gummer) and his former college love Betsy (Mickey Sumner), the low-key author accuses Lipsky of crass flirting. His words sting. Segel, giving the performance of his career, potently catches Wallace’s internal conflicts.
As the details accumulate, so does the power of the film, an illuminating meditation on art and life that hits you hard with its ferocity and feeling. What could have been a static record of a conversation becomes kinetic cinema of startling immediacy. Lipsky wrote, “Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you’d like to hang out with.” The End of the Tour lets us hang out with two different writers who strive rigorously to never completely let their guard down. Although of course they end up becoming themselves. Right in front of us. That’s what makes the movie, elevated by two extraordinary actors, an exhilarating gift. In the last image Ponsoldt gives us of Wallace, the former athlete is doing something that distills what his words do with such artful abandon: dancing.