See “The End of the Tour” – if, that is, you ever wanted to see a truly good film about a writer. It is, in that way, a minor miracle.
So few and far between are even tolerable films about writers, much less good ones, that the truly worthy ones are ALL minor miracles. We’re not talking about free-form Shakespeare fantasies, mind you, we’re talking about movies about modern writers that have any verisimilitude at all.
I can think, frankly, of only three recent ones, and they’re all vehemently small-scale: Andrew Wagner’s fictional “Starting Out in the Evening,” Bennett Miller’s “Capote,” and now James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” based on David Lipsky’s remarkable book “Although You End Up Of Course Becoming Yourself.”
And “The End of the Tour,” like “Capote” and “Starting Out in the Evening,” depends on astonishing central performances – Frank Langella as the fictional writer in “Starting Out,” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning role in “Capote,” and now, incredibly, Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.”
Langella and Hoffman were potential masters of their profession from the first time they set foot on soundstages. Until now, Segel has been a comic foil and buffoon in ignorable TV sitcoms and pseudo-soulful Judd Apatow slob bromances. Discovering that Segel’s professional skills include this kind of work on screen is why movies continue to be the glorious cultural awakenings that they are.
Frankly, I have no idea if Wallace’s friends and family members can watch “The End of the Tour” and think well of the movie and Segel’s performance. When plans to make it were first announced, the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust opposed it and resolutely decided in advance that they “do not consider it an homage.” (Carefully note the grammatical exactitude of “an” used with the word “homage.”)
I believe in Segel as Wallace – completely and unequivocally. For film purposes, he’s as extraordinary as Hoffman was as Capote and, like Hoffman, he goes far beyond whatever accurate mimicry he is able to achieve.
Until he hanged himself at the age of 46 in 2008, Wallace had generally been praised as the male writer of his generation – even by other male writers of his generation. After Wallace’s suicide, former Buffalo News Book Reviewer Mark Shechner said that Wallace’s “whole life had been one long suicide note.” News literary blogger R.D. Pohl recalled Wallace’s 2000 reading at the University at Buffalo as “one of the strangest (literary) events I’ve ever been to. He seemed incredibly uncomfortable – almost self-mocking. … And all of us packed into the room felt like reluctant witnesses to a minor unraveling.”
“The End of the Tour” isn’t coy about Wallace’s end. In the movie, those who never heard of him are immediately apprised of his suicide.
What we’re seeing is about Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s intended magazine interview with Wallace, who was on his tour to read and promote his mammoth novel “Infinite Jest” (whose title comes from Hamlet’s tribute to “alas, poor Yorick”). Lipsky was hoping to please his Rolling Stone editors with a Wallace confession to being a recovered heroin addict. He ended up not writing the piece for the magazine but, after Wallace’s suicide, turning it into the 2010 book “Although, Of Course, You End Up Being Yourself.”
So here’s Eisenberg in characteristic high-IQ, semi-weasel mode as Lipsky and Segel as Wallace, who spends much of the film, as Wallace often did (out of anxiety over sweat) wearing a bandanna.
Wallace once wrote that he took up tennis because he wasn’t big enough for other sports. He couldn’t think of himself as big. Other writers usually describe him as tall, at the very least. Lipsky’s description is “big build; big build plus bandanna. Like he’s going to ask you to play hacky sack and if you say ‘no’ would be willing to beat you up.” That’s a near-perfect physical rendering of their reputations at the time of the interview – Lipsky’s was small-to-nonexistent except to a professional coterie, Wallace’s was as huge as his 1,000-page novel and growing, like the footnotes seem to do in the novel.
But Segel, at 6-foot-4, is so much more. How do you portray a man so insistent on honest candor and exactitude that he was frequently capable of getting himself wrong? How do you portray a man so tortuously self-conscious that consciousness itself couldn’t help but be an intolerable burden? He’s an ex-prodigy so indefatigably brilliant that passing as “normal” could only have been a heroic effort.
And how do you do that on film without forcing the audience out of the theater screaming in revulsion? Segel does it in this film. And to give credit where it’s due, so does Eisenberg playing off him, as well as the script by Donald Margulies and the direction by James Ponsoldt.
We watch these two as, over the course of five days, they talk about everything from Wallace’s dogs, Jeeve and Drone, to masturbation to their tobacco habits (Wallace’s includes chewing the stuff – “brothers of the lung” as he calls it) to pop culture by the ton. What you’ve seen by film’s end is the heroism of a man who always knew, no matter what he did, that he’d end up “becoming himself” (“my primary addiction in my entire life has been to television.”) A great movie in a most unusual way.
The End Of the Tour
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack
Director: James Ponsoldt
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rating: R for language
The Lowdown: Adaptation of David Lipsky’s book about his long road trip interview with writer David Foster Wallace to promote Wallace’s huge novel, “Infinite Jest.”