In the mid- and late 1990s it became a thing to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page, 3-pound masterwork “Infinite Jest,”* or at least carry it around and claim you were reading it.
The rave reviews and widespread popularity of the book turned the tall, bandana-wearing Wallace into a literary rock star, something he found equal parts fascinating and mortifying. Wallace was enamored with the popular culture (he was addicted to television, actually and seriously addicted to binge-watching before binge-watching was a thing) and with the inner workings of the media machinery — but he was also a quirky, sometimes socially awkward, troubled artist who battled depression for decades and took his own life in 2008 at the age of 46.
Wallace’s life and work could be the subject of a towering, serious biopic, and maybe that’ll happen someday, but in the meantime we have the refreshingly original, whip-smart and consistently funny “The End of the Tour.” It’s a brilliant slice of life, concentrating on a key period in Wallace’s career.
Whether you still treasure your dog-eared copy of “Infinite Jest” or you’ve never heard of David Foster Wallace, director James Ponsoldt’s cerebral road movie stands alone as a celebration of Wallace’s unique gifts and singular personality — and the dance of wits between a good writer and a great one.
Jesse Eisenberg has the Jesse Eisenberg role as David Lipsky, a twitchy, brainy, talented and self-absorbed writer who gets a plum assignment from Rolling Stone: Spend five days with Wallace (Jason Segel) as the celebrated author winds up a multi-city tour to promote his best-selling book.
Lipsky makes the trek to snow-drenched Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where Wallace was teaching at Illinois State (Michigan stood in for Illinois in the filming), arrives at Wallace’s doorstep and is openly awestruck by the amiable giant who greets him and invites him to stay in a spare bedroom. For most of the next five days, Lipsky keeps his tape recorder running as he accompanies Wallace on a PR trip to Minneapolis; goes on something of a double date with Wallace; engages in rapid-fire banter with Wallace about all manner of subjects; and gently and then not-so-gently prods Wallace to talk about some dark chapters in his past.
Wallace never quite drops his guard — he’s too self-aware and too schooled in the very journalistic tricks Lipsky attempts — but he’s not immune to Lipsky’s obsequious interest. He begins to regard Lipsky as a new friend and even says “This is nice” as they spend another day together. He also tells Lipsky, “[But] it’s not real.”
What a performance from Segel. We see glimpses of Wallace’s troubled side, from an intense and unwarranted outburst at Lipsky to a disturbing glimpse into Wallace’s addiction to junk TV, but Wallace is also a funny, thoughtful, sweet man with a lovable canine sidekick. He’s not a bummer. He’s a guy who likes to dance.
Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace were chronicled in the excellent 2010 memoir, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.” Donald Margulies’ screen adaptation is rich with terrific, pinpoint dialogue. It’s nomination-worthy.
Even though we know David Foster Wallace’s fate, “The End of the Tour” is so effective because it’s far too smart to engage in ominous foreshadowing. It’s not a sugarcoated take on Wallace’s life, but it IS great fun. Thanks in large part to Segel’s career-best work, this is one of the best movies of the year.
*This was a time when most of us were reading actual, stand-alone books. When you were finished, you’d put them on a shelf. A bookshelf.