In 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent almost a week living and traveling with author David Foster Wallace. Wallace was winding up a book tour in support of his highly acclaimed, wonderfully crazy novel Infinite Jest, and Lipsky thought there was no better time to spotlight this author in one of America’s most-popular magazines.
The interview never got published in the magazine. Twelve years later, Wallace committed suicide, at the age of 46.
Lipsky, who kept his interview tapes, used them for his book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, published after Wallace’s death. That book has been adapted into the beautiful and heartbreaking The End of the Tour, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, and Jason Segel in a surprising, noncomedic turn as Wallace.
The movie is so eloquent in the way it shows two young writers simply talking to one another about their craft, and it deftly illustrates how Wallace thought and spoke, thanks to an incredible performance from Segel. It’s heartbreaking that we know what fate awaits Wallace 12 years after this meeting.
Segel’s Wallace is a likable, slightly strange, shy man who knows he’s supposed to open up to Lipsky for promotion’s sake, but fears sounding like he’s stupid and/or selling out. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is the consummate journalist, married to his cassette recorder, examining medicine cabinets and looking for the perfect moment to pounce with a question about heroin. (Lipsky’s editor, as played by Ron Livingston, insists that Wallace’s suspected heroin usage be at the heart of Lipsky’s story.)
When Lipsky shows up at Wallace’s snowy Illinois home to start the interview, he doesn’t encounter some conceited intellectual guy drinking up newfound fame. Instead, he encounters a humble man alone in his house, living a quiet life with two crazy dogs and having Pop Tarts for breakfast. Lipsky and Wallace immediately try to establish a level of trust; Segel and Eisenberg always make the back-and-forth convincing.
Tour then becomes a road movie, of sorts, as the two travel to Minneapolis on the final leg of the Infinite Jest book tour. It’s on this trip that Wallace reveals an addiction to television—an addiction so bad that he refuses to have a TV in his house.
The film touches upon the sadness and problems that plagued Wallace, made most evident when the two writers square off while discussing Wallace’s college sweetheart (Mickey Sumner). Segel and Eisenberg make this particular moment uncomfortable and even scary. Segel, without outright declaring what Wallace’s afflictions were, gives us real insight into the insecurities and conflicts that beat Wallace down in the end. It’s easily the best-acted moment of his film career.
Directed by James Ponsoldt, who is on a hot streak with this and his most recent works, The Spectacular Now and Smashed, the film offers nice insight into the sudden fame that Wallace achieved, and the journalist who was fascinated by it. The settings of snowy Bloomington, Ill., and Minneapolis (with also-snowy Michigan substituting for the cities) provide the perfect tone for the film. Danny Elfman contributes an evocative, soothing soundtrack that is miles away from his more-burlesque work with the likes of Tim Burton.
The film shows off a remarkable give and take between two actors. There’s often sweetness and warmth, but there’s also an ever-present undercurrent of melancholy. Segel personifies Wallace perfectly. He was a confusing, brilliant, sorrowful, funny, complicated, gifted man, and there’s no doubt Segel knew that.
The film plays with the notion that no matter how well a journalist and a subject hit it off, friendship can’t come before the story. There’s a real sadness in the idea that these two could’ve been real pals had there not been the need to do an interview.
The End of the Tour is now playing at the UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickford St, Cathedral City; 760-328-7100).