I know very little about David Foster Wallace. I know he wrote some books and that I once tried to read one. I couldn’t finish it. Reading him was like being trapped in a room with someone who is fascinated by even his most trivial thoughts. Wallace fussed over his every single notion like a person with OCD fussing over whether or not they turned off the stove this morning. That he eventually hanged himself added weight to my sense that he was just a big, fat head case. Keep in mind, I was glad Wallace existed. At a time when there were no “important” writers around, he’d keep the seat warm until someone else came along. Yet, his fame worried me. It was as if the American reading public could only absorb childish tripe, cheap erotica, or the sort of Metamucil dished out by writers like Wallace. It was as if books were either written for meatheads or eggheads.
The End of the Tour stars Jason Segel as Wallace. I don’t know enough about Wallace to tell you if Segel does a fair impression of him, but I initially winced at the idea of Segel playing the role. This meant Wallace the depressed navel gazer would be coming to movie screens as a giant, lovable, Jewish teddy bear. This wasn’t as bad as the time in the 1980s when a story circulated that Stallone was all fired up to play Edgar Allen Poe, but it was close. From the trailer, which has been playing in art houses for several weeks as if trumpeting the arrival of the Colossus of Rhodes, Segel appeared to be playing Wallace as an insecure fellow who feels funny about being so smart, like one of those powerful cartoon hillbillies who can’t explain his super strength. This, combined with the fact that writers rarely make good subjects for films, was enough to chill me on the idea of a Wallace movie.
Yet, I liked it. Playwright Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000, wrote the screenplay based on a memoir by David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer who interviewed Wallace in 1996 at the height of Wallace’s fame. The movie is what used to be called a “two hander,” with most of the screen time taken by Lipsky and Wallace as they discuss everything from the perils of success to the loneliness of the long-winded writer. The story moves along in a surprisingly high spirited manner, the interviewer and his subject circling each other with nervous caution. They occasionally reveal something, then back away, like two spinning tops that have accidently clicked against each other. Wallace is uncomfortable carrying the weight of American letters on his stooped shoulders, so he embraces his average guyness: he loves dumb action movies, devours junk food, and openly fantasizes about one day meeting Alanis Morissette. At first Lipsky is amused that this superstar egghead is actually a meathead, but he eventually grows suspicious and accuses Wallace of being a phony. Wallace mopes, struggles for words, grows surely. Around and ‘round they go: interviewer meets subject, interviewer loses subject, interviewer doesn’t quite get him in the end.
Throughout, Margulies’ theatrical sense keeps the dialogue from going fruity on us. He keeps us guessing. Is Wallace, as Lipsky suggests, a faker? Friction develops as Lipsky chips away to get his interview. When Lipsky accompanies Wallace on his way to a bookstore appearance, their closeness makes Wallace downright irritable. Lipsky, enamored of his subject, pulls back when things get too prickly. Watching how close the two come to utter contempt for each other is part of what makes the movie fascinating. (The filmmakers were also smart to not include any of Wallace’s writing in the movie, for all it would take is one bum passage from Infinite Jest to leave us doubting the guy's greatness.)
Lipsky has his agenda. His marching orders include prying into Wallace’s past, which allegedly includes a nervous breakdown, a suicide watch at a mental institution, and a rumored heroin addiction. As Lipsky, Jesse Eisenberg is the movie’s unsung hero. He has the less showy role, but he’s a perfect counterweight to the more mercurial Wallace/Segel. Eisenberg makes Lipsky a memorable character, not when he’s wiping tears away in memory of the dead author, but when he shows himself to be a bit of a snake, the sort of hack journalist who realizes he’ll never be one of the greats, but still feels within his rights to hit on one of Wallace’s ex-girlfriends. Eisenberg’s is a sly, nuanced performance. Segel, too, finds the right tone as Wallace. While he never seems like someone who will write a 1,000 page novel, Segel taps into Wallace’s vulnerability and fear. It was key to cast a likable actor as Wallace, otherwise his constant prattling would become annoying. Segel also has a talent, going all the way back to his days on Freaks and Geeks, for playing men who are bewildered by their circumstances, whether he’s surrounded by Muppets, or in Hawaii trying to woo Mila Kunis There’s a great love of life in Segel’s characters, but there is melancholy, too, as if his great love isn’t entirely reciprocated. When cornered, he’ll fight back, only to be beaten. Has the cinema ever boasted such a magnetic loser?
Even more than just a keen dialog about success and genius, the movie works as an old fashioned road flick. The book tour brings the pair from Wallace’s snow covered home in Illinois to the wilds of Minneapolis. The Mitsubishi plant, the convenience stores, the cheap hotels, all provide a gummy undercoating for their highfaluting talk, while Minneapolis, with its Mall of America and the Mary Tyler Moore statue, turns out to be the most American of cities. As Wallace sheepishly says at one point, “It’s not un-fun.” This is the same Wallace who suspects too much internet porn will result in a kind of spiritual death. This seems to be Wallace’s conundrum: he’s guilty about enjoying himself on the way to oblivion.
Still, there are some misfires. Director James Ponsoldt tends to reach for the most heavy-handed visual metaphors available. We get a lot of scenes where people are shaving ice from windshields, a film class 101 ploy to show characters digging under facades, while Lipsky and Wallace are constantly lost, either in parking lots or at the mall, an unsophisticated stab at showing the confusion of their inner journeys. Ponsoldt also gives a little too much play to Wallace’s flabby black Labradors, as if Segel isn’t cuddly enough. The biggest groaner is when Lipsky beds down in Wallace’s guest room, the walls lined with hundreds of copies of Wallace’s own books, shot from below to appear sky high, as if Lipsky has inadvertently invaded Wallace’s mind and now the walls threaten to tumble down and crush him. We get that Lipsky is no mental match for Wallace, but did we need such an obvious symbol to smack it home?
It’s also unfortunate that in a movie where the two main characters are so perfectly drawn, the side characters seem like dull extras patched in from other movies. Joan Cusack, usually a treat, provides unneeded comic relief as a book tour chauffer, and the talented Ron Livingstone is wasted as Lipsky’s one-note, cliché’ d magazine editor. Mickey Sumner and Mamie Gummer are also insipid as a pair of Wallace’s friends who meet him in Minneapolis. But such hiccups are few and brief. The cinematography by Jakob Ihre is appropriately misty and cold, and the nineties music is well chosen and never obtrusive. The movie never overdoes the sentiment, and thankfully, Wallace isn’t portrayed as a misunderstood, tragic hero. Still, I was bugged when Wallace claimed to enjoy dancing, and cited the Frug as one of his specialties. We later see him lumbering around a dance floor like an idiot. Would it have killed him to do a proper Frug?
Regardless, I walked out of the theater feeling that I’d seen something special. Not only that, but now I’m ready for Stallone as Poe.