The literary mystique surrounding David Foster Wallace was born with his acclaimed 1987 novel "The Broom of the System" and significantly heightened with his 1,079-page 1996 magnum opus "Infinite Jest," a searing, boundlessly layered satire revolving around a film so entertaining that its viewers lose interest in everything else and subsequently succumb to their own mortality. The author rose to seemingly overnight fame, but he never quite acclimated to the stardom his writing brought him or the pressure that came with living up to his previous work. Suffering from depression for over twenty years, Wallace tragically hung himself in September 2008 at the age of 46. In the wake of his death, he left behind an unfinished, posthumously published manuscript called "The Pale King," and a legacy that deepened precisely because, in many ways, he remained an enigma.
The fascination over who Wallace was and what made him tick was very much a part of the public consciousness following the release of "Infinite Jest," and it was this interest that prompted Rolling Stone
reporter David Lipsky to convince his boss to let him join Wallace for a whirlwind five-day interview as he finished up the last leg of his book tour. That interview, never published in the magazine, was the subject of Lipsky's best-selling 2010 memoir "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace," a work that has now been strikingly adapted for the screen by screenwriter Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt (2013's "The Spectacular Now
"). The provocative outcome is "The End of the Tour," a predominate two-hander that casts Jesse Eisenberg (2014's "Night Moves
") as the opportunistic, vaguely envious David Lipsky and a revelatory Jason Segel (2014's "Sex Tape
") as the modest, messily complicated, sharply intelligent David Foster Wallace. Their working relationship, brief though it lasted, blossoms, shifts and escalates in complexity, a microcosm of human connection, journalistic integrity, and the potentially impossible pursuit of accurately capturing the true essence of a person through words both spoken and scribed.
Looking to make a splash at his new gig with Rolling Stone
, Lipskya published novelist in his own right with 1996's well-received "The Art Fair"travels to Wallace's simple rural home in snowswept Bloomington, Illinois. His hope is to ingratiate himself to Wallace and eventually, over the course of five days, tear down enough of his defenses to confront the real man underneath. Wallace is very much aware how every word he utters has the chance to be misrepresented, just as he also knows that Lipsky, when he finally sits down to pen the piece, has all the power to talk about his subject from any angle he chooses. With Lipsky's editor (Ron Livingston) making it clear that he wants dirt on Wallace's dark rumored past with drugs and mental illness, he becomes torn between his allegiances to the writer and pursuing what will get him bigger headlines. When their time together has come to a closea trip that takes them to Illinois State University, where Wallace teaches creative writing, and to Minneapolis for his last book signing and a scheduled NPR interviewLipsky will ultimately be left to wonder if he got so lost in his own agenda that he missed out on the whole core of who Wallace innately was.
"The End of the Tour" chooses the low-key over grand gestures and melodramatic histrionics, and it proves more richly powerful as a result. With his fly-on-the-wall gaze zeroed in, director James Ponsoldt has dramatized David Lipsky's true-life conversations and experiences, finding within them an insightful, at times staggering, depth that isn't just about the fleeting, questionably earnest friendship between these two professional writers, but about the intricate responsibilities inherent in the interview process and the universal struggle to be understood while still retaining a certain privacy. Wallace doesn't pretend to have everything figured out and, as he tells Lipsky, just because he happens to be gifted in one particular area doesn't mean he knows anything about a different craft.
As Wallace and Lipsky size each other up as their chats bounce from one topic to the next, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg share a unique and quietly tense camaraderie. Wallace is not naïve; he knows what Lipsky wants out of him, but what he has to give in return probably won't be what he is searching for. Whether they are entirely forthcoming with each other is also in question. Segel is outstanding as David Foster Wallace, his mind always working and his body slouched as a way of not asserting his intelligence in social situations. When he wants to be heard, though, he uses his looming size to his benefit. Usually seen in lightweight comedy fare, Segel has stepped out of his comfort zone and proven that he has all the pathos and levity needed to fully embody this unassuming yet thoroughly captivating and troubled non-fictional figure. Eisenberg is optimally cast opposite his co-star as David Lipsky, a guy who leads with a confident hotshot air but is insecure in his own right, not least because girlfriend Sarah (Anna Chlumsky) appears to like Wallace's writing better than his own. The unconvincing way Eisenberg smokes onscreen is the only glimmer of artifice in a performance that matches Segel's in terms of its unanticipated emotional depth and dynamism. In small but memorably observed supporting turns, Mamie Gummer (2015's "Ricki and The Flash
") and Mickey Sumner (2013's "Frances Ha
") turn up as Julie and Betsy, acquaintances of Wallace who take them out while they are in Minneapolis, and Joan Cusack (2015's "Welcome to Me
") is enormously funny in a very honest way as Wallace's cheerful driver Peggy.
"The End of the Tour" plays like a tête-à-tête symphony, finding profundity in the minutiae of human interaction. Tiny moments that normally would pass the viewer by are magnified with a rare awe and reverence, as when Lipsky comments during a wintry morning walk that the landscape looks beautiful in the snow, and Wallace replies, "You should see it in the spring, when the wind blows." Also quite stunning is a late scene where Lipsky is briefly left alone in Wallace's home and he breathlessly scours the rooms, tape recorder in hand, making a verbal list of everything he sees before him. When he comes upon a St. Ignacius quote, he briefly pauses to take it in, wondering if he may have been all wrong about the literary genius with whom he has just spent the better part of a week. The film's one debatable misstep comes right at the very end with the choice to leave out a key postscript about the fate of Lipsky's magazine article that would have ultimately broadened the conversation. With or without this, however, "The End of the Tour" will leave viewers enraptured and with plenty to discuss. Uncompromising and largely true, the film's portrayal of David Foster Wallace should only fan the flames of interest in a man who was never able to overcome his demons but whose immeasurably impactful body of work continues to live on.