Just because David Foster Wallace would almost certainly have hated “The End of the Tour” doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile movie. And in fact James Ponsoldt’s dramatic adaptation of Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s memoir about his 1996 road trip with Wallace is pretty excellent: heartfelt, probing, funny, above all touching. Added bonus: It will make a lot of people who haven’t heard of the writer — or only know him as that post-pomo archangel atop Mount Literature with the famous commencement speech — want to pick up Wallace’s 1,000-page magnus opus, “Infinite Jest,” or (a better place to start, probably) one of the essay collections.
And if the movie’s over-worshipful toward a man who distrusted all forms of media myth-making and public persona, at least it’s about our tendency to over-worship, and it shows Wallace pushing back and parsing his own feelings about fame. “There’s nothing worse than someone who goes around saying ‘I’m a writer I’m a writer I’m a writer,’” the movie’s Wallace tells Lipsky. “I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone. [But] I don’t want to appear in Rolling Stone as someone who wants to be in Rolling Stone.” The movie presents this as The Modern Artist’s Dilemma: How do you search among the haystacks of media hype and personal ego for the small, sharp needle of authenticity? “The End of the Tour” only missteps in implying that the search (or its failure) led to Wallace’s 2008 suicide, when the truth about depression is more physiological, more terrible, and more banal.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky, an avid novelist-turned-reporter who tags along with Wallace for the final five days of the “Infinite Jest” book tour. And you’ve probably heard by now that Jason Segel, heretofore better known as a comic actor, plays Wallace in the kind of performance that is generally called “career-changing.” If Segel gets any awards out of this, it would be just one more layer of irony atop an already wobbly cake, but it’s a committed and earnest performance, and an honest one. The fact that sadness clings to this Wallace perhaps more visibly than it did in reality — a “Charlie Rose” appearance from 1997 is available on YouTube and makes a good real-thing reference point — probably has more to do with Segel’s hangdog bearing. Even in his comedies, he always looks two beats away from tears.
So Eisenberg’s Lipsky is the envious little terrier to Segel’s morose St. Bernard. It matters, I think, that both actors are working writers as well, and that director Ponsoldt (”The Spectacular Now”) has served time in the trenches of entertainment reportage. “The End of the Tour” is acrid with the knowledge of how a journalist skims the surface of a subject’s life for the grabby detail, how an assignment invites exploitation, and how that exploitation is excusable only to the extent the subject allows it. Take it from me: When Lipsky secretively ducks back into Wallace’s house to catalogue the writer’s belongings into his tape recorder, that’s a faithful representation of the psychic home invasion that comes with the job.
The movie is presented as a sort of mobile “My Dinner with Andre,” with the conversation revolving through Midwestern diners, in malls, on airplanes, in long car rides. There are subsidiary characters, and, interestingly, almost all of them are women: Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner (daughters of Meryl Streep and Sting, respectively) as friends of Wallace, one of them providing a moral test for the journalist; Anna Chlumsky as Lipsky’s girlfriend back in New York; Joan Cusack as a cheerful Minneapolis driver.
By contrast, the verbal dueling that’s the main order of business in “The End of the Tour” is a guy thing, Lipsky wanting something from Segel — dirt, advice, friendship, acknowledgment — and Wallace obsessed with cutting through the words of the conversation to get to the actual point. Which of course requires more words, of which he is a proud and helpless master. The dramatic peaks of this movie come in dialogue form, not action, and their emotional power stems from a thinking and feeling man struggling to give voice to his doubts.
Here’s Segel’s Wallace on his generation’s and his own media addiction: “We’re going to have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure, or, I don’t know about you, I’m going to have to leave the planet. Because the technology’s just gonna get better and better and it’s just going to get easier and easier and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine, in low doses. But if it’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re going to die. In a very meaningful way, you’re going to die.”
That this message comes to you in a commercial (if “independent”) movie is yet another layer on the cake. Everything in our popular culture urges us toward a simple-mindedness that is easier to understand and certainly easier to sell. The movie illustrates this in the tacky tabloid-y questions Lipsky asks Wallace (prompted by his editor in New York) that only cause the writer to look at the reporter with pity. But of course “The End of the Tour” is part of the simplification, too, the packaging of a restless and astonishingly profuse talent into the kind of Tragic Genius our hearts and marketplace know how to handle.
Made with love and skill, the movie deserves to be seen. And, as mentioned, the proper response is to pick up some Wallace and read him for yourself. (He requires effort; the good stuff always does.) At one point in “The End of the Tour,” when the friendship between writer and reporter seems to be going well, Wallace leans over and says to Lipsky, “David, this is nice. This is not real.” Whether the filmmakers know it or not — and I’d like to think they do — that describes their movie perfectly.
• Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace in ‘The End of the Tour’
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.