The End of the Tour Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Back in 1996, when David Foster Wallace’s mammoth, insanely brilliant novel Infinite Jest became an instant literary sensation, Rolling Stone sent contributing editor David Lipsky to interview Wallace on the final leg of his book tour. The two Davids spent five days together, talking incessantly while Lipsky’s tape recorder rolled, but the magazine wound up killing the piece. Their conversation was only published after Wallace’s death (he hung himself in 2008), in a book entitled Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Now, that book has improbably been adapted into a movie, The End of the Tour, starring Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) as Lipsky and, even more improbably, Jason Segel as Wallace. Is there anything to be gained by having this dialogue edited to a fraction of its original length and performed by actors? Not really, but there’s a certain voyeuristic pleasure in watching two sizable egos clash.
What’s at stake for Wallace (at least as he’s conceived as a character), is authenticity. Early on, he tells Lipsky that he’d really prefer to control his public image, and is concerned about all the ways in which a writer can easily manipulate how he comes across, even while quoting him verbatim. Consequently, much of their conversation sees Wallace—whose work is so unapologetically erudite that even people who scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT verbal section keep a dictionary handy when reading him—attempting to position himself as a regular guy. He waxes rhapsodic about Die Hard and talks earnestly about how he wishes he could parlay his literary fame into a date with Alanis Morissette, and while he’s not being dishonest, he seems disingenuous—providing the profile he wants Lipsky to write. Segel captures that reasonably well, while simultaneously doing a decent impression of Wallace’s vocal and physical mannerisms. (The trademark bandana helps.)
All the same, this relentlessly talky movie never quite justifies its existence. In a sense, it’s just a very bloated version of an ordinary celebrity interview, struggling to mine tension from the basic antagonism between someone who’s endeavoring to look good and someone who’s trying to get juicy material. Both actors are solid, but they can’t do much with such banal micro-conflicts as Wallace getting pissy when he thinks Lipsky is hitting on his ex-girlfriend. For a truly incisive look at this great writer’s penchant for self-doubt and self-interrogation, read his books.