Sundance Film Festival: “The End of the Tour” treats David Foster Wallace with compassion and insight

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Jason Segel gets David Foster Wallace just right in James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour.” He looks just like the big, shaggy, brilliant author of “Infinite Jest,” and he sounds just like him too, the mix of pithy insights, tangents of self-doubts, and moments of unshakable compassion towards the human condition all tumbling out.

He sounds like him. But he sounds like us, too.

In a way, “Tour” is very much about the perceived line between Wallace, a writer who has achieved the sort of fame we thought writers didn’t achieve anymore, and David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a “promising” writer, who would very much like to have that attention.

The film opens in 2008, with Lipsky learning that Wallace has committed suicide. He hauls out the box of tapes he made in 1996 on the “Infinite Jest” tour (which he turned into a memoir, “In the End Of Course You Become Yourself”), and the bulk of the film is taken from Lipsky’s book.

Initially resentful of Wallace’s sudden rock star status, Lipsky has to give it up when he realizes Wallace really is that good. (“Shit,” he exclaims, hilariously, while reading “Jest.”) He pitches Rolling Stone on a story, and heads to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, to follow Wallace around for a few days.

Much of the screenplay, written by Donald Margulies, is just good conversation, as the pair drive and talk and get junk food and smoke and talk some more. When Lipsky arrives at Wallace’s house, the writer is playing with two gigantic, slobbering dogs, and in a way, Wallace comes off like the third dog. He’s big, he’s friendly, he’s curious — but every now and then you wonder what’s going on behind those eyes.

Segel’s deeply felt performance will get the most attention, but he finds a worthy foil in Eisenberg’s canny Lipsky, who wields a tape recorder as a weapon as he both warms to Wallace and manipulates the conversation to his own ends. (Eisenberg is a master of the polite “ha ha, keep talking” chuckle interviewers use on their subjects.) Among other things, “End of the Tour” is one of the best movies I’ve seen on the uneasy nature of interviewing, where, if you’re lucky, moments of connection between two people can happen within the construct of an arranged interview. But you forget that construct at your peril.

Ponsoldt, who seemingly never met a character he couldn’t feel compassion for (“The Spectacular Now,” “Smashed”) is the perfect filmmaker to handle this material and the subtly shifting dynamics between the two men. We see ourselves in the grasping, envious Lipsky, but we also see ourselves in Wallace, a guy grappling with incredible success, and the growing knowledge that it hasn’t fundamentally changed him. He’s in a relatively good place in 1996, but the things making him happy are not the things that society (and Lipsky) would expect to make him happy.

A sojourn to Minneapolis, where the pair meet a perky book tour escort (the invaluable Joan Cusack) and a pair of Wallace’s old college friends (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner) shakes up the relationship between the two writers. “The End of the Tour” is not a “bromance,” and audiences will differ on how close Lipsky and Wallace have really grown by the time it’s time for Lipsky to go home.

But it’s a fascinating and poignant film about friendship and envy, and the ways we can tie ourselves into knots trying to meet our own expectations or the ones we imagine others have of us. Better to just take Wallace’s advice, as he puts both hands on Lipsky’s shoulders and implores, “Be a good guy.”

Ponsoldt said in the post-show Q&A that he’s been a fan of Wallace since was a teenager writing for an alt-weekly in Athens, Georgia, desperately trying to seem cooler than he was. While the shadow of Wallace’s death hangs over the film in its framing device, Ponsoldt wanted to make a film about mental illness and addiction that didn’t treat it as some sort of “otherness,” but as a human condition that so many people wrestle with.

“I had never a story of mental illness, addiction, suicide that didn’t feel exploitative,” Ponsoldt said. “I thought this film could be a corrective to other depictions.”

As for Segel, he said he constructed his performance as Wallace using Lipsky’s tapes and books, as well as taped interviews and speeches the writer gave. But more importantly than getting at what made Wallace different, he wanted to capture what made him the same as everybody else.

“What I really tried to focus on, is that, if the film resonates with you, or if ‘Infinite Jest’ resonates with you, it speaks to a very human emotion,” Segel said. “A gnawing emotion that things are not okay, and you’re not enough.”

 

 

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