Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Seventeen

#17 — The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

When it was announced that Jason Segel was hired to play writer David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, the brays of outrage were drowned out only by the derisive laughter. At the time, Segel was doing his duty on the rapidly collapsing final season of How I Met Your Mother and was otherwise known for playing genial goofballs who weren’t overly bright. It was preemptively judged a legendary act of miscasting by those who revered the dense, ornate language and whirligig philosophizing of the late author of Infinite Jest. Even the pop culture aficionados who harbored less laudatory appraisals of Wallace’s work were happy to offer unkind words for Segel. I maintain Segel proved them all wrong; he’s phenomenal in the role.

The film finds Wallace as he’s completing the long grind of a book tour in support of Infinite Jest at the time of its initial publication. With some reluctance, Wallace accedes to a profile by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who tags along on the last few tour stops. Conflicts emerge because of Lipsky’s deeply embedded resentment that Wallace has accomplished something that well outpaces Lipsky, whose unrealized ambitions roil beneath his surface. Lipsky hasn’t even fully acknowledge or grappled with this dark feelings, and he spars with Wallace with tight jabs of passive aggression. The men engage in puffed-up pontifications and eager appreciation of more lowbrow fare and foodstuffs, both edging their way towards deeper understanding of their respective selves in the process.

The jabbering reflexively mean-spirited intellectual is right in Eisenberg’s wheelhouse, and he plays Lipsky with unforgiving insight. (The film is based on Lipsky’s memoir of reporting on Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.) It’s Segel who strengthens and deepens the movie, though. Segel immersed himself in Wallace, listening to recordings of interviews and racing through his voluminous works, and emerged with a portrayal that never feels like an impression. Rather than simply mimicking Wallace, Segel seems to find his way into the very being of a person who carries that creative drive couple to wearying uncertainty, who indulges in largely innocent versions of hedonism and feels unable to touch the world. Segel’s Wallace courts attention and then seems beaten down by it. All these contradictions shade Segel’s acting, making Wallace feel like a guise he’s living in.

For his part, Ponsoldt knows to capture the interplay between the characters — especially the two leads — without trying to juice up the material. The End of the Tour is about discussions and glances and restless movements. There are rich visuals and obvious care with the craft of the narrative, but none of the mechanics are obtrusive. Ponsoldt is admirable unafraid of letting the film be largely comprised of complicated conversations. It could be ponderous. For some, it likely is. And yet line, aligned with Segel’s deep-dive acting, the choice is clearly the best way to honor the film’s depicted workdsmith.

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