A clever, gently provocative movie about talking, listening and competing interests, "The End of the Tour" is a two-character play that managed to hitch a ride as a road movie directed by James Ponsoldt, whose previous films include "The Spectacular Now" and "Smashed."
In March 1996, starting at his house outside the college town of Normal, Illinois State University professor and "Infinite Jest" author David Foster Wallace turned five days of his life over to the company, the questions, the competitive insecurities and the cassette tape recorder belonging to Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky.
The interview coincided with the final days of Wallace's book tour. He was famous and brilliant, the hottest literary figure in the land. Even if he hadn't written the glorious sprawl "Infinite Jest," a book whose dire intimations of commercialism have been fulfilled and grimly exceeded by 21st-century capitalism, Wallace's travel story "Shipping Out" (published in Harper's; reprinted in the invaluable Wallace collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again") would've been enough to make him a writer-hero.
"Shipping Out" came out two months before Lipsky traveled to Normal to begin the five-day road trip. The two went all over, talking about fame and its terrors. They discussed the risks of self-exposure in print and in the relatively new phenomenon of the online wormhole. Lipsky, a semi-failed novelist, envied Wallace, the successful, cooler one. Four years apart in age (Lipsky was 30, Wallace, 34), the men became temporary surrogate little/big brothers, and Lipsky's eagerness to impress fed the extended, exhaustive interview, one that wound its way back to Normal.
"The End of the Tour" is a canny dramatization of those five days, as distilled by screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
Margulies has long been interested in the interviewer/artist dynamic, notably in his play "Sight Unseen," and there's a similar (and similarly uneasy) tension in another Margulies play, "Collected Stories." Jason Segel plays Wallace, and he's getting most of the attention for this small, well-crafted film. Ever since "Freaks and Geeks," Segel has honed his comic chops in series television, lately in "How I Met Your Mother," and in films such as "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "The Muppets."
It's not as if Segel throws all that away in "The End of the Tour." Rather, the actor creates a dreamy, solemn but subtly vibrant version of Wallace that works for him and for the material. "I feel I should offer you a tea or something," he says to his visitor, Lipsky, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg. It's a flat statement, tinged with deadpan wit.
There are moments in Ponsoldt's film when Wallace's future is hinted at too strongly; he killed himself in 2008 after a seesaw lifetime of addiction and depression. For the most and best part of "The End of the Tour," though, Margulies, Ponsoldt and the actors avoid ginning up the conflict and the pronounced differences between the two men. The film is told from Lipsky's perspective. His 2010 book, "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," made up of the interview tapes, was adapted by Margulies. In his book, Lipsky acknowledges that he has moments of seeming "hungry and ungenerous" in relation to Wallace's cultural impact. For better or worse, Eisenberg takes those impulses and runs with them, presenting a version of Lipsky that is alternately kind, self-absorbed, patronizing ("Why are you not in New York?" he asks Wallace) and cunning in his attempts to get his subject to talk about the subjects he doesn't really want to talk about.
Others pop in for a scene or two, notably Joan Cusack as the world's most chipper book-reading host, and Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner as Minnesota lit-world pals of Wallace's. Both appear smitten in a low-keyed way with the famous writer in the bandanna, and semi-intrigued by the guy from New York in his orbit. Margulies uses this to point up a glint of jealousy in the other direction; Wallace doesn't like Lipsky poaching on his turf.
Ponsoldt's film is a period piece, and the period now seems extraordinarily far away. It takes place four years before "Survivor" clicked with American audiences, ushering in the era of reality TV and digital technology built for perpetual self-aggrandizement. Wallace knew it was coming. In "The End of the Tour" we're eavesdroppers listening in on the thoughts and psychological-social strategies of two writers, and, against the odds, it works; it's compelling. Many feel the film, based on Lipsky's interview transcriptions, carries a ghoulish aura of opportunism. It doesn't strike me that way: It strikes me as a good, solid inquiry into how much a subject can and should open up to an interviewer, and how the trust involved can be a very complicated two-way street.