Believe it or not, there was a time when highbrow authors were seen as celebrities. Back in the ’60s, John Cheever, James Baldwin, and J.D. Salinger all appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Meanwhile, novelists like Truman Capote and Gore Vidal became fixtures on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show couch, dropping bons mots on the masses. But somewhere along the way, serious writers of Big Ideas were relegated to the pop culture remainder bin—for the most part, they were no longer meant to be seen or heard, just read. If that. That was still the case by 1996, when David Foster Wallace became a publishing sensation with the release of his epic 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. At the time, David Lipsky, a hungry Rolling Stone reporter, persuaded his editor to greenlight an in-depth interview with the brilliant and standoffish 34-year-old literary wonder boy during his press tour for the book. It was an assignment that Lipsky would later call the best conversation he’d ever had. Now, seven years after Wallace’s suicide, Lipsky’s memoir about their five days together on the road has been adapted into James Ponsoldt’s thoughtful and deeply affecting indie, The End of the Tour.
Lipsky is played by that whippet of neuroses, Jesse Eisenberg. And the casting is both spoton and too on the nose. We’ve seen Eisenberg play these kinds of twitchy, socially awkward characters before, but along with his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, this may be his most articulated variation on it. The real revelation (an overused word, but it truly applies here) is Jason Segel as Wallace. Segel is best known for his work in Judd Apatow’s comedies, but as the guarded, self-conscious author, he reveals a side he’s never shared before. He’s remarkable. Segel uses his rangy build and Wallace’s signature bandannas as armor—you can see him trying to shrink and hide from the world. Despite his soaring talent, Wallace seemed to be petrified of fame, fearing that he would be consumed by its embrace.
The End of the Tour is a road movie. The Mutt-and-Jeff duo zip through the Midwest in a rental car, stopping for junk food and swapping observations about high and low culture. But bubbling beneath the surface of their bull sessions is Lipsky’s competitive jealousy and Wallace’s paralyzing distrust of not being the narrator of his own biography. Like Almost Famous, Ponsoldt’s film gets at something deep and true about the journalist/subject dynamic and the phony intimacy and tiny betrayals implicit in it. It’s a profoundly moving story about a towering talent who seemed to feel too much and judge himself too harshly to stick around for long. What a shame. A–