The End of the Tour, a dramatization of an extended interview between the late novelist David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, nimbly takes some of the more provocative, wide-ranging ideas from Wallace’s Infinite Jest – about loneliness, ego, addictive entertainment and American achievement – and lets them play out in the intimate arena of the pair’s conversations. It’s My Dinner with Andre, but set in cars and over the dismal junk food that the movie suggests was the basis of Wallace’s diet.
Jason Segel makes his bid for dramatic actor status as Wallace, and it’s a good one. Holed up alone in a small Illinois town, Wallace is deeply distrustful of fame and attention, and Segel nicely captures that underlying uneasiness. A big guy, he’s usually slightly hunched, as if he’s trying to hide. The layers of clothing he piles on seem to serve a similar purpose. And notice how he warily eyes Lipsky’s tape recorder as if it were a brandished weapon.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky, matching his usual persona – smart, sniveling, insecure – to that of a man sent to profile the man he wants to be (Lipsky is a published novelist as well, but to much less fanfare). The irony is that Foster – who has already seen acclaim come and go once – doesn’t even want to be the man he is, hence his suspicion over the entire enterprise. As he says to Lipsky early on: “I would like to do a profile on one of you guys doing a profile on me.”
Wallace warily eyes Lipsky’s tape recorder as if it were a brandished weapon.
That is, in fact, what The End of the Tour becomes. Based on the actual Lipsky’s account of his time with Wallace, but filtered through screenwriter Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), the movie is most intriguing as a passive-aggressive competition of egos between the two men. Their conversations grow pricklier, and their jabs less discreet. It’s fair to assume that when Wallace offers his spare room to Lipsky early on, he doesn’t realize that the stacks of his published books that surround the bed will be a punch in the gut. But later, in a flirtatious phone conversation with Lipsky’s girlfriend, Wallace certainly knows what he’s doing. (As does Lipsky when he takes a big swig of a beer not long after talking to Wallace about his struggles with alcohol.)
Because the deepest ideas here are echoes of – if not direct lifts from – Infinite Jest, there is the slight feeling that The End of the Tour is a borrowed work. But in the performances especially – and in the occasionally poetic touches Ponsoldt adds with his camera, including a postscript shot of Wallace dancing – the movie becomes a worthy conversation piece all its own.