Brilliance is devilishly difficult to capture on film. So often, the necessary concessions that come with condensing prickly complexities into a concise cinematic narrative leave supposed acts of creative genius looking like shabby husks and the individual behind such revered greatness falling into pat, simplified categories, disposable icons with fervent spark and chasm-like flaws. Maybe the mightiest accomplishment of the many within The End of the Tour is the film’s honest, complicated, engrossing consideration of how brilliance resides uneasily in a society unprepared to meet it with due respect and gratitude. It is one of the few instances I can think of in which a film introduces a figure as intellectually imposing and then backs up that characterization with compelling evidence, up to and including the wobbly self-confidence that should meets a swell of adoration. Surely nothing is so clear a marker of uncommon braininess than a nagging certainty that everything could have been done better.
The End of the Tour follows David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail-end of his promotional jaunt following the publication on Infinite Jest, the cinder block-sized novel that transformed him from a respected writer to a literary sensation, beneficiary (or victim) of breathlessly laudatory reviews and voice-of-a-generation proclamations. In the days surrounding a stop at a Minneapolis bookstore, Wallace is shadowed by David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who is prepping a profile for Rolling Stone. Lipsky is a relatively new staff writer at the rock ‘n’ roll rag, retreating to Jann Wenner’s periodical after a recent book was indifferently received. Lipsky approaches his subject with a challenging mixture of idolatry and resentment. Lipsky can’t help but try to ingratiate himself to Wallace, as if doing so is akin to claiming a scrap of the man’s talent, but he also indulges in pettiness at every perceived slight.
Wallace’s family have disavowed the movie, presumably because the writer wouldn’t have wanted this fictional incursion on his privacy (when Wallace estate is directly profiting from the publication of an unfinished novel, an even more questionable muddling of the writer’s legacy, concerns about what he might have wanted didn’t seem to exactly move to the forefront). In terms of depiction, though, it’s Lipsky’s clan who might have cause to draw up some protest signs and pick a spot in front of the multiplex box office. He comes across as a shallow, needy snake, the damaged, chain-smoking Salieri to Wallace’s Mozart. That the film is based upon Lipsky’s nonfiction account of his short time with Wallace and he presumably consents to or at least accepts the unflattering portrayal is a sign of the film’s bracing honesty.
Eisenberg is uncompromising in his performance as Lipsky, simultaneously making him unlikeable and sadly understandable. Lipsky is another entrant in the actor’s collection of intelligent assholes, though here Eisenberg leans into the open wound vulnerability that spurs the questionable behavior. The revelatory performance is on the other side of conversation. Segel stirred ire when he was cast as Wallace, with fans of the author absolutely certain that the admittedly limited rage the Freaks and Geeks alumnus had displayed to that point made him ill-suited (at best) to the role. What Segel does on screen is nothing short of remarkable. He doesn’t disappear into the role, using the camouflage of impression to hide within Wallace, but instead lets the writer fully inhabit him. The body language, the twist of his mouth, the evident excitement when engaged in a topic, the anger when confronted with tiresome accusation, the deflation every time he is reminded that Lipsky is a probing threat rather than a confidant: all of these things add up to a exhaustive consideration of a gifted person awkwardly coming to terms with his new exalted position in a world that gives him no comfort.
When expressing ambivalence about the unexpectedly lengthy run of How I Met Your Mother, Segel noted that he had misgivings about playing the same part year after year, citing the chameleon-like transformations of Peter Sellers as his true acting ambition. This is the first time I believe Segel can be that type of performer. Even better, The End of Tour suggests he has it within him to be the actor Sellers was becoming near the end of his life, when the safety of caricature was set aside in favor of the piercing emotional purity found in Being There. I might be able to give Segel’s performance a greater compliment, but I’m not sure how.
The film’s resolute intelligence and acute psychological underpinnings come straight from the real-life exchanges of Wallace and Lipsky. By all accounts, screenwriter Donald Margulies (a Pulitzer Prize-winner for the play Dinner with Friends) is as much a curator as an inventor, drawing generously from the audio tapes that caught the conversations between writer and subject. What Margulies has done, expertly, is to take those words and shape them into drama, developing the proper ebb and flow. Director James Ponsoldt approaches the material with a thrilling confidence, refusing to burnish the lengthy scenes of little more than two men talking with distracting camera tomfoolery or aggressive editing. He gently lets sequences play out, framing shots with obvious care but without allowing his visuals to become overly precious. Ponsoldt’s direction is masterful. That same word can be applied to practically every piece of The End of the Tour.