James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” is about author David Foster Wallace, a truly brilliant writer hindered by his inability to climb out of his mind, to snap himself out of the intense thought and contemplation needed to write. The film provides a glimpse into the life of this lonely, tormented artist and does so in a stripped-down, non-manipulative way.
Based on David Lipsky’s nonfiction book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” “The End of the Tour” follows Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he interviews Wallace (Jason Segel) during the final leg of the tour for his novel “Infinite Jest” over a five-day period. Retaining the structure of Lipsky’s book, the picture is an extended conversation between the two writers as they discuss the process of writing, literature, film, fame, depression and so on. Everything unfolds in an organic and easygoing manner, and there’s not much in the way of plot or conflict in the traditional sense.
Segel, who has been only a comedic actor up until now, has always struck me as a genuine, down-to-earth guy. He has such a likable and comforting on-screen presence, even when playing slackers and losers. Through his plain persona, he’s able to transcend the broad comedic boundaries he usually finds himself in.
In “The End of the Tour” he slips comfortably into the character of Wallace, playing the late literary icon with his normal likability and underlying melancholy. Wallace is laidback and soft-spoken, intelligent without being snotty and self-righteous. He has a humble, everyman quality to him and, like Segel, a comforting presence.
On the other hand, this relaxed attitude masks a painful self-awareness. In interviews, the real Wallace can be so amiable and insightful, while noticeably self-conscious and vulnerable. He has great things to say, but he often hesitates and second-guesses himself. It’s not that he’s simply insecure but that he recognizes the danger in thinking too highly of himself and his views.
During his first bout of success in his early 20ss he let that success go to his head, leading to alcohol and heroine use and being diagnosed with depression.
In “The End of the Tour,” we’re presented with someone who is aware of his immense talent but is also weary of what success can do and cautious of being too outwardly confident.
Unfortunately, he’s so concerned with not letting fame or his ego get the better of him that he’s constantly questioning and overthinking, not letting himself live in the moment. That’s why some of the best sequences in “The End of the Tour” are when Wallace loosens up. A scene of him in a Minneapolis movie theater — wide-eyed, with the biggest smile on his face — is one of the funniest, most touching moments in the entire movie because Wallace is clearly enjoying life.
If you’ve seen any Eisenberg performance, you’ve seen his David Lipsky: motor-mouthed, nervous, sporadically charming and a little condescending. But he acts as a nice sounding board for Segel and helps keep the film moving.
Plus, as the movie reveals, Lipsky has his own insecurities, primarily due to the fact that he’s not as successful as he wants to be. Throughout the five-day interview you can sometimes detect jealousy in his line of questioning. Part of him views Wallace’s “regular guy-ness” with hostility and contempt; he doesn’t understand why Wallace isn’t more excited about his fame because he doesn’t have it himself.
As a director, Ponsoldt shows incredible restraint, employing a minimal, nonintrusive style that keeps the focus of the movie firmly planted on Lipsky and Wallace. Even though “The End of the Tour” is driven by the acting, it takes a skilled director to maintain an intimate and natural atmosphere (free of melodrama) for those actors to operate in.
It also takes a skilled writer to comb through Lipsky’s 300-plus-page book and dig out the most essential parts of the interview. Ponsoldt’s script captures the loose conversational likeness of the book, without feeling too overstuffed and aimless.
But it all comes back to Segel and his rich, multilayered performance as a brilliant, damaged and all-around complex character. This is, without a doubt, his meatiest role to date, and “The End of the Tour” proves he has what it takes to carry a more dramatic picture.
(Rated R for language, including some sexual references.)