Jason Segel portrays literary giant David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, a quiet, contemplative film that chronicles a five-day conversation between Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky during the final leg of Wallace's Infinite Jest publicity tour. The film opens Friday at the Cedar Lee and should immediately become the best movie about writers and writing you've seen since 2002's Adaptation.
Lipsky, portrayed by the sniveling Jesse Eisenberg, was himself a Wallace idolator. He had that in common with just about every young, college-educated white male who considered himself a serious reader, deep thinker, or budding novelist in the late '90s and early-to-mid aughts. Lipsky's pitch to Rolling Stone, it's very clear, is less about profiling the most famous writer in America in 1996, and more about sidling up to a figure he held in both esteem and contempt. More than to be Wallace's pal, Lipsky wanted to be Wallace's clone, to experience the special reverence with which Wallace was treated in libraries and bookstores. (And minus the sniveling contempt, this is ironically how Wallace himself often approached professional tennis players: What is it this guy's got, he asked more than once, that I don't?) To cast the Lipsky/Wallace division in starker relief, Lipsky had published a novel at the same time, and even his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) prefers Infinite Jest.
So the two Davids chat — or more like spar — as Lipsky's tape recorder eternally listens in. Wallace, who can't help but enjoy the spotlight of literary fame, is also extremely anxious about its trappings. He resists Lipsky's deeper probings and tries to communicate just how nuanced and suspect the idea of literary celebrity is. He's deeply concerned about his image. In his work, and certainly over the course of 1,079 pages in Infinite Jest, Wallace labored to delineate the ways in which personal (and societal) quests for pleasure-at-all-costs could result in loneliness and doom. And his conversations with Lipsky, much of them lifted word-for-word from Lipsky's transcripts which became the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, continually boomerang back to those themes.
This isn't a script written by a fan trying to sound like Wallace. This is, for the most part, the unvarnished conversation itself, in diners, malls and living rooms, often as not over cigarettes and pop. Director James Ponsoldt (Spectacular Now) doesn't try to impose an artificial narrative over the chit chat. Lipsky travels to the flat, snowy expanse of Bloomington, Ill., where Wallace taught at Illinois State, and together they fly to Minneapolis for the final tour stop. Then, they come back.
Ponsoldt knows that the exchange, at either end of which is a writer with his own set of secrets and priorities and fears, is rife with tension. To say nothing of the fact that Wallace committed suicide in 2008, and the entire conversation is presented in the foreshadow of that tragedy. Segel and Eisenberg manage to take what on its face might seem like a dull and self-conscious exercise and turn it into a powerful and at times really beautiful film about fame and ambition and the ever-mythologized writer's life.