Up to now, Jason Segel has been known for relatively lightweight roles in romantic comedies, like “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Not surprisingly, fans of acclaimed author David Foster Wallace were skeptical at the thought of Segel being taken seriously in his portrayal of Wallace in this summer’s “The End of the Tour.” The skeptics are eating their words now, as Segel has hit it out of the park with his brilliant embodiment of Wallace in this astonishingly fine movie. It isn’t simply that Segel brings Wallace to life in his performance, it’s that you actually forget he’s acting and ultimately truly believe he is who he pretends to be.
Segel’s success could not have happened without the equally compelling performance of Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) as fellow novelist and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. The film follows the two writers on a five-day interview, during which Lipsky, having convinced Rolling Stone editors that they need to do a story on Wallace, whose 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” has made him the hottest, most talked about writer in America. Lipsky stays with Wallace and his two black labs in his country home outside Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace teaches creative writing at Illinois State University (inexplicitly called in the film “a small state university in Illinois”), and accompanies him on the last stop of his book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a trip to Minneapolis (where a bubbly Joan Cusack points out the Mary Tyler Moore statue). Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a nervous interviewer who admires, even idolizes Foster and wants his approval (he even brings his own novel along to try to get Foster’s mutual admiration, but at the same time seethes with a barely concealed envy and competitiveness. In the Twin Cities, the interview begins to take some nasty turns, as mutual jealousies come to the forefront between interviewer and interviewee. The two create a kind of chemistry that makes it hard to take your eyes off them.
If the premise—an entire film that consists almost solely of a conversation between two writers—sounds rather ho-hum and doesn’t tempt you away from exploding bombs and superhero action, then maybe you should watch a few minutes of a trailer showing Eisenberg and Segel conversing together. The film, which is virtually all dialogue, seems very much like a play (though Jakob Irhe’s cinematography is a treat for the eyes, mixing the stark but beautiful Illinois winter landscapes juxtaposed with the fast-food outskirts of small-town middle America). This is not surprising since it is written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Marguilies—someone who, like the characters in the film, is a writer himself and therefore comes with all of the insecurities and ambitions of the film’s two main characters. This is Marguilies’ first script written for the big screen (he did a screenplay of his play “dinner with Friends” for an HBO movie previously), and the writing is so compelling, the nuances in the interactions of two competitive writers so subtly presented in the dialogue, that an Oscar nomination for Margulies would not come as a surprise to me.
For that matter, the two principal actors are certainly worth an Oscar look, particularly Segel, who nails the brilliant, depressive, reclusive, self-doubting and self-promoting Wallace at every point. And director James Ponsoldt (previously known mainly for “The Spectacular Now”) has achieved something rare and moving in this film.
The film leaves a few things hanging. Though it is never clearly revealed, Lipsky never published that Rolling Stone article. The film opens in 2008, 12 years after the interview, when news of Wallace’s suicide is revealed to the world. We immediately see Lipsky digging through his things in a closet where he has kept the interview tapes. The film is based on the book Lipsky wrote from those tapes—the acclaimed 2010 memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. A question that Wallace asks Lipsky several times during the interview, as he wonders what Lipsky will decide to write or how he will slant the piece, is “Are you a good man?” The memoir is probably the answer to that question. And the film is, I suppose, Margulies’ interpretation of how Lipsky answered the question. The biggest question, of course, is raised at the beginning of the film: Why did Wallace take his own life? We are constantly listening for clues during the interview, having been set up to do so at the outset. Questions that emerge during the course of the interview involve Wallace’s depression, his earlier suicide attempt, his addiction to alcohol and what he describes as his addiction to television, and how these things play into his depression.
I’m going to go out on a limb and call The End of the Tour the best film of 2015 so far. It has been in limited release, but is finally now released nationwide. You really ought to see this movie. It deserves four Shakespeares.