Some David Foster Wallace fans recoiled when they heard that sitcom veteran Jason Segel had been cast to play the Infinite Jest author in a movie. But Segel stretches impressively beyond expectations in The End of the Tour, an intriguing if not altogether convincing film. The actor is not just hulking physique and long hair wrapped in an unflattering bandana.
Less unexpected is Jesse Eisenberg's fidgety performance as David Lipsky, the frustrated novelist who wrote a book about his journalistic encounter with Wallace. Unfortunately, Lipsky is the film's main character.
That is, in no small part, because he survived. The story begins in 2008, with the news that Wallace has committed suicide. Lipsky rushes to a radio studio to offer his perspective, based on a multiday interview with Wallace 12 years earlier for a Rolling Stone piece that was never published. (It was reborn as a book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.)
Then it's back to 1996 and off to Bloomington, Ill., where Lipsky travels to meet an alternately welcoming and reluctant Wallace. The two will spend a few days together talking over the successful novelist's art, neuroses and taste for mass-market cultural consumables, from Alanis Morissette to breakfast pastries. Rather than My Dinner with Andre, the film is My Pop-Tart with David.
The pair flies to Minneapolis, where Wallace is to do the final reading of a book tour. They're greeted by a broad caricature of Midwestern hospitality (Joan Cusack) and later meet two of Wallace's fans/friends/possible love interests (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner). Lipsky also puts his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) on the phone with Wallace, and is not pleased by her pleasure.
Yet the real dating game is between Lipsky and Wallace. The interviewer has been sent to get the dirt: Is the hot writer suicidal? Alcoholic? A heroin addict? What Lipsky actually craves is some of the better-known man's mojo. For his part, Wallace wants an agreeable profile in a prominent magazine. He's willing to pretend, even to himself, that he and Lipsky are becoming buddies.
"This is nice," he says of their dialogue, before immediately turning self-conscious. "This is not real."
Director James Ponsoldt, who previously made the teen melodrama The Spectacular Now, stages the conversations in diners, airports and bookshops. He also packs the soundtrack with songs, a few of which offer commentary. When Wallace first tries to explain to Lipsky the gap between his image and his true self, Tracey Ullman's version of "They Don't Know" plays in the background.
Segel is generally persuasive and engaging. While he's not quite convincing in Wallace's stormier moments, it's hard to imagine another actor pulling them off, either.
Eisenberg does a lot of familiar shtick, which can be annoying. But then annoying is sort of right for a reporter who accepts the guest room in his subject's home and then rummages through his medicine cabinet.
That's about as eventful as The End of the Tour gets, which means it's no competition for the latest Mission Impossible flick. The movie is only for Wallace buffs and one other, even smaller group: journalists who have interviewed a reasonably famous cultural personage.
Those who've had that experience will likely squirm at Wallace and Lipsky's parody of friendship, their shifting balance of truth-telling and self-promotion, and the uncomfortable mix of candor, ritual and con game. When the encounter is over, Lipsky has learned enough to write a magazine feature. But David Foster Wallace remains unknown and unknowable.