James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” is about author David Foster Wallace, a truly brilliant writer hindered by his inability to climb out of his mind, to snap himself out of the intense thought and contemplation needed to write. The film provides a glimpse into the life of this lonely tormented artist and does so in a stripped down, non-manipulative way. Based on the nonfiction book “Although of Course You End of Becoming Yourself” by David Lipsky, “The End of the Tour” follows Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he interviews Wallace (Jason Segel) during the final leg of the tour for his novel “Infinite Jest” over a five-day period. Retaining the structure of Lipsky’s book, the picture is an extended conversation between the two writers as they discuss the process of writing, literature, film, fame, depression and so on. Everything unfolds in an organic and easygoing manner, there’s not much in the way of plot or “conflict” (in the traditional sense).
Segel—who has been only a comedic actor up until now-- has always struck me as a genuine, down to earth guy. He has such a likable and comforting on-screen presence, even when playing slackers and losers. Through his plain “Gentle Giant” persona he’s able to transcend the broad comedic boundaries he usually finds himself in. In “The End of the Tour” he slips comfortably into the character of Wallace, playing the late literary icon with his normal likability as well as an underlying melancholy. Wallace is laidback and soft-spoken, intelligent without being snotty and self-righteous. He has a humble, everyman quality to him and, like Segel, a comforting presence. He’s not the usual eccentric and self-absorbed successful artist.
On the other hand, this relaxed attitude masks a painful self-awareness. In interviews the real Wallace can be so amiable and insightful while at the same time noticeably self-conscious and vulnerable. He has great things to say but he often hesitates and second-guesses himself. It’s not that he’s simply insecure but that he recognizes the danger in thinking too highly of himself and his views. During his first bout of success in his early twenties he let that success go to his head-- leading to alcohol and heroine use and being diagnosed with depression. In “The End of the Tour” we’re presented with someone who, deep down, is aware of his immense talent but is also weary of what success can do and cautious of being too outwardly confident.
So when Wallace says, “I treasure my regular guy-ness” he’s not saying it to be pretentious but to keep himself from running into the same problems he encountered in his twenties. Unfortunately, he’s so concerned with not letting fame or his ego get the better of him that he’s constantly stuck in his head, questioning and overthinking, not letting himself live in the moment. That’s why some of the best sequences in “The End of the Tour” are when Wallace loosens up. While watching the movie “Broken Arrow” in a Minneapolis movie theater we see a shot of him, wide eyed, with the biggest smile on his face. It’s one of the funniest, most touching moments in the entire movie because Wallace is clearly enjoying life. He’s genuinely caught up in the moment-- indulging in a piece of dumb, fun escapism, instead of being trapped in his head.
If you’ve seen any Eisenberg performance you’ve seen his David Lipsky—motor-mouthed, nervous, sporadically charming and a little condescending. But he acts as a nice sounding board for Segel and helps keep the film moving. Plus, (as the movie reveals) Lipsky has his own insecurities, primarily due to the fact that he’s not as successful as he wants to be. Throughout the five-day interview you can sometimes detect jealousy in his line of questioning. Part of him views Wallace’s “regular guy-ness” with hostility and contempt; he doesn’t understand why Wallace isn’t more excited about his fame because he doesn’t have it himself.
As a director, Ponsoldt shows incredible restraint-- employing a minimal, nonintrusive style that keeps the focus of the movie firmly planted on Lipsky and Wallace. Even though “The End of the Tour” is driven by the acting it takes a skilled director to maintain an intimate and natural atmosphere (free of melodrama) for those actors to operate in. It also takes a skilled writer to comb through Lipsky’s three hundred plus page book and dig out the most essential parts of the interview. Ponsoldt’s script captures the loose conversational likeness of the book (never inserting any forced tension or contrived plot points) without feeling too overstuffed and aimless.
But it all comes back to Segel and his rich, multilayered performance as a brilliant, damaged and all around complex character. This is without a doubt his meatiest, role to date and “The End of the Tour” proves he has what it takes to carry a more dramatic picture.