Jason Segel excels in a wonderful tribute to a literary icon that manages to be funny and enjoyable without losing it’s poignancy.
Making a film about the late author David Foster Wallace was always going to be a difficult task, considering his cult status as an author, as well as the tragedy that filled his short life. However, with The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt manages to tell Wallace’s story through the timeline of just a few days and through another’s personal view of him during that time, as he adapts journalist David Lipsky’s book about spending 5 days with Wallace in 1996, entitled Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
With the creation of the novel is how the story begins, as the film opens in 2008 with Lipsky, played by Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg, hearing news of author David Foster Wallace’s suicide, which encourages him to dig back and find the tapes of when he interviewed Wallace for an unpublished article for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1996.
We then flashback to 1996, where we see how the 5 days that Lipsky spent with Wallace began, and how it developed. We first meet Wallace, who is played by How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel, at his home with his 2 dogs, and from that moment we get a sense of overwhelming suffering in his life, which is briefly referred to in passing at different points in the film but it isn’t key to the story. After all, this isn’t a biopic, and it isn’t particularly about Wallace; it’s about Lipsky, as he is the audience’s window into him.
The film relies on Lipsky asking Wallace the right questions, and, with tape recorder in hand, the film plays out as, what Segel has described as in interviews, a verbal tennis match, in which you need to the other person to play the ball back to you, but you’re always looking for the upper hand, which is a poignant analogy due to Wallace’s love of Tennis, which is a key theme in the book that Wallace is on the titular press tour for, Infinite Jest. In fact, it’s Infinite Jest that is what holds the film together. This is the masterpiece that Wallace is best known for, a lifetime of work, and it is up to the book’s success that drives Wallace’s next move. It’s put him into a position in which he is, as Lipsky says, ‘the most talked about writer in the country’, yet Wallace doesn’t react kindly to this, and his depression, that has plagued him throughout his life, continues, but doesn’t let it show.
Instead, it makes Wallace a more subtle character, which is brought to the table by Jason Segel, who, in brief glances, we get to see the broken man on the inside, while he has to put on a brave face throughout, so he is being open enough for it still be possible for Lipsky to write his profile on him, while you get the sense that he is incredibly uncomfortable. Segel manages to convey so much with so little, thoroughly transforming from the wide-eyed comedian best known for 2011’s The Muppets, to getting into the mind of a tortured genius, and manages to convey Wallace’s incredibly smart thoughts into something believable and honest. It truly is one of the best acting performances you’ll see this year.
In a less showy role and more on common ground for him, Jesse Eisenberg also excels as Lipsky, who manages to portray a character that is so keen for the story that, at times, he can be best friends with Wallace, while at other times he can be somewhat bothersome. In one key scene in which Wallace is giving a radio interview, the camera cuts to Eisenberg’s Lipsky, who is ferociously taking notes with a stern facial expression, before the camera cuts back to Segel’s Wallace, who is shown with a blank, lost face, a similar one that Wallace gave him as he is signing copies of Infinite Jest after a reading. A scene that really sums up the relationship of the two comes just before that reading, in which Wallace is joking around with one of the members of staff at the book shop, and Lipsky goes and buts in with his tape recorder to get it down. It really shows the lengths that he will go for his story. And it’s Eisenberg who assuredly makes this clear.
If you know anything about Wallace’s life, you would be excused for thinking that this would be a depressing affair, but with help from Donald Margulies’ light and quick paced screenplay and Danny Elfman’s twinkling score, it is genuinely enjoyable, and at times, funny, making use of the two leads’ comedic talents that they have shown in their previous work. Director Ponsoldt manages to add some brief foreshadowing of Wallace’s tragic demise, but he had a sort of an ‘elephant in the room’ attitude to it, with Lipsky pursuing the rumours of Wallace’s heroin addiction, for which he claims that it was television that he was addicted to. It’s the lightness of touch, and the down to earth, low budget film-making that makes this as charming as it is.
What makes the film particularly special is that it isn’t edging around Wallace’s personal tragedies and what is to come. Instead of acting as a tribute to him, it tries to explore what made him so special. The film’s closing shots is of Wallace ecstatically dancing in a Church to “The Big Ship” by Brian Endo, one of the real Wallace’s favourite songs. It’s a hopeful close, where there was no hope.
VERDICT: With an outstanding, revelatory performance from Jason Segel at it’s core, The End of the Tour is an engaging film that plays out like a conversation, but is as fulfilling as any film you’re likely to see this year.