David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, “Infinite Jest,” touches on a wide variety of topics: addiction, family relations, politics, film, recovery and advertising. It’s a deep and complicated examination of these lofty subjects set against a world of a drug recovery center and a junior tennis academy.
Director James Ponsoldt didn’t have to face the Herculean task of adapting that book to the feature film “The End of the Tour” but gets to deal with many of Wallace’s topics through the writings of David Lipsky. It was Lipsky who dogged Wallace for five days at the end of the book tour for “Infinite Jest” to write an article for The Rolling Stone.
After Wallace killed himself in 2008, Lipsky wrote the book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” recounting the time he had spent with Wallace. That book serves as the basis for this film.
Telling Wallace’s story through Lipsky’s book has humanized the writer’s thoughts where we who don’t live among the writing Muses can better grasp the deep thoughts. The film is able – through a standout performance by Jason Segel – to show both the brilliance that gave Wallace a clear vision of the world and the depression that kept everything in the dark.
It’s critical that both Wallace and Lipsky (as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg) have plenty to say, as Ponsoldt has designed his film as little more than a two-man play. There are some peripheral characters, but the bulk of the movie rests on the informed, enlightened and engaging conversations of the two men.
And, the shredding away of the superficial to show what is really important to both men is accomplished through words taken directly from the hours of actual recordings by the two men.
Movie characters can come across as two-dimensional when given too many smart things to say. It always sounds little more than the regurgitation of scripted banter. But, the words in “The End of the Tour” resonate with a truth that makes them compelling. These are two people who just don’t have lines, but have something to say.
Segel’s career is built on goofy comedy, but this film finally tests him as an actor. He not only delivers Wallace’s wonderful words with an ease, he even makes quiet moments very powerful. Segel can show with one look the confusion, concern or contempt Wallace is feeling.
Eisenberg does a good job but never slips into the skin of the character the way Segel does. There’s something about Eisenberg’s performance that always comes across as slightly out of focus. Add to that how uncomfortable he looks in scenes where he has to smoke, and Eisenberg turns in a much lighter performance than Segel.
The real star is the script.
As described in the film, Wallace is one of those great literary minds that comes along once in a generation. As shown with such deft skill by Segel, Wallace was also a man who suffered from countless demons. You can feel the loneliness the author carried like a cross in every scene.
This emotional connection is possible because Ponsoldt had faith that the script by Donald Margulies was strong enough to tell the story without a lot of camera trickery or maneuvers. These are two people having a conversation worth hearing, and through the film it’s possible to be touched by each and every syllable.