You know Jason Segel as the adorable big cut-up from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets and especially TV’s How I Met Your Mother. In The End of the Tour, he is transformed significantly into the haunted, brilliant postmodern novelist David Foster Wallace. He doesn’t really resemble the author facially, even if his physique matches that of Wallace, a former tennis player. Clad in spectacles, long hair, and the novelist and essayist’s trademark bandannas, Segel delivers most of his lines in a flat, medicated drawl, and yet somehow this sterling dramatic performance is as lively as any of his outright comedic ones.
The film is based on Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky’s transcription of the audio tapes he made during the five days he spent in March 1996 following Wallace around as a journalist on assignment for Rolling Stone. In the wake of the publication of Wallace’s epic comic novel Infinite Jest and the ecstatic reviews it received, Lipsky spent those five days talking to him about literature, mental health, fame, internet porn, Alanis Morissette, Die Hard, Wallace’s dogs, and other burning topics of the day, starting at the author’s house in Bloomington, Ind., and following him to Minneapolis for the last stop on his book tour. Screenwriter Donald Margulies (a veteran playwright writing his first screenplay) has the advantage of taking most of his dialogue straight from Lipsky’s book.
The director here is James Ponsoldt, whom we all need to be taking more seriously. After his alcoholism dramas Smashed and The Spectacular Now, this is the third really good movie he has made in a row. His style isn’t flashy, but he can direct the living crap out of the terrific actors who come his way. Here he’s in charge of what is essentially a two-hander, despite the presence of actors like Joan Cusack as a book-tour escort and Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner as graduate students of Wallace’s. Most of the scenes are between the writer and the journalist (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who goes well beyond his brief as a Rolling Stone profiler to try to understand what makes this complicated and enormously entertaining conversationalist tick. This provides all the drama we need, as in an early exchange when Lipsky pivots a humorous talk about dead-end jobs into a question about Wallace’s time in suicide watch. Ponsoldt keeps this setup from turning claustrophobic and makes a film good enough to rank with the best films that rest on their two-way conversations: My Dinner with André, Richard Linklater’s Before films, Weekend, and Clouds of Sils Maria.
In a film like this, much depends on the two actors cast in the leads. Eisenberg does his customary skillful work and knows not to intrude on Segel’s star turn as a man desperately trying to think his way out of his depression while knowing that his condition is too much even for a man of his tremendous mental faculties. He finds the loneliness and despair that’s never far from the surface of this convivial literary celebrity.
Somewhat regrettably, Margulies chooses to build to a climactic confrontation over Lipsky’s hesitantly asking Wallace to answer the rumors about his heroin use. The book shows that this conversation did not come at the end of their time together, and it wasn’t nearly as charged. Using this as a hook for the movie’s structure is a bit cheap, but it does serve a purpose: It helps this movie scrape the glamour off the myth of the tortured artist. The Wallace we see here is deeply unhappy, and his situation is unenviable. His life is small, he can’t sustain relationships because no one and nothing ever takes him outside his own head, and all the acclaim that comes to him only serves to increase his feelings of unworthiness. However much you might want to write like David Foster Wallace, you’d probably pass on all the psychic baggage if that was the price for that gift. The End of the Tour is the best movie I can remember about clinical depression. It isn’t depressing, though. Its overall effect is rather exhilarating, the fond memory of a doomed, keenly insightful, funny man who was generous enough to leave behind some wildly entertaining books so that the rest of us could feel lucky to have been inside his mind.
The End of the Tour
Starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by Donald Margulies, based on David Lipsky’s book.