In the three decades-plus I've been lucky enough to get paid to watch movies, I've watched a lot of them about artists, and most of them have blown. Movies about writers are the worst. Filmmakers haven't figured out how to translate the creative process into images, or how to show what a great mind is thinking. Until now.
With The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) has broken Hollywood's long losing streak. As a result, the most remarkable novelist of our age is the subject of the most remarkable picture of the season — possibly the year.
Ponsoldt gets around the challenge of making an artist's inner world visible simply by letting David Foster Wallace speak for himself. Adapted from David Lipsky's 2010 Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the movie re-creates the Rolling Stone writer's encounter with Wallace on the last leg of his 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. The film is essentially a five-day conversation.
With the publication of the complex, encyclopedic Infinite Jest, a literary star had been born. Lipsky convinced his editor to let him profile Wallace; though the piece was never published, the interviews yielded a treasure trove of cassette tapes. When Wallace committed suicide in 2008, the journalist realized he had a priceless cultural artifact packed away in his apartment. Happily for us, Ponsoldt realized that the record of Lipsky's interviews contained the makings of profound and riveting cinema.
The filmmaker's second stroke of genius was in casting Jason Segel in the starring role. A more astonishing dramatic debut is impossible to imagine. Look past the signature wire-rims and bandanna and study his eyes, voice and body language. This is acting at its most quietly precise.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky. Here he suggests the character he played in 2005's The Squid and the Whale grown up, but still in search of a literary father figure. He flies out to Bloomington, Ill., to meet with Wallace, and winds up staying at the author's house, accompanying him to a Minneapolis bookstore reading, eating a lot of junk food and having a life-changing chat.
And that's the movie. It's virtually all talk. Normally that would be the kiss of death for a film, but here it's David Foster Wallace doing the talking. It's fascinating to listen in as the two men take the measure of one another and perform the tricky ritual of the celebrity interview.
The script offers a mesmerizing study of the process and the subtle shifts in the dynamic between the two — journalist and subject, wannabe and genius, stable guy and terribly troubled human being. This dance is rendered with insight and nuance by screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
The two discuss B movies, the vice grip of television, malls, cheeseburgers. One high point is the explanation Wallace offers for his poster of Alanis Morissette (it involves a hilarious fantasy he harbors of eating a baloney sandwich with the singer).
What hits hardest is a more serious moment near the end. Wallace knows his guest envies, even idolizes, him and so gives him a haunting parting gift: an unguarded account of the depression and alcohol abuse that led to the author's time in rehab.
Afterward, too stunned to turn on his tape recorder, Lipsky grabs the nearest piece of paper and scribbles frantically. Until that moment, it hasn't been clear whether these two people could become something like friends. They might as well have been from different planets. In its own way, this movie that starts with a suicide has the most unlikely of happy endings.