LOS ANGELES (AP) — Many journalists who have written feature profiles of public figures will have experienced that light-bulb moment, once the cautious mutual-assessment phase is concluded and you start digging for the meat, when the subject perhaps casually reveals some illuminating aspect of him- or herself around which the entire article can be built. Those moments come thick and fast in “The End of the Tour,” James Ponsoldt’s exquisitely elegiac film about David Foster Wallace, examined over the course of a five-day interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, 12 years before the influential writer’s suicide in 2008 at age 46.
The same compassionate observation of human imperfections that distinguished Ponsoldt’s films “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now” makes him an ideal interpreter of this material, while playwright Donald Margulies’ thoughtful screenplay brings tremendous insight into the way writers’ minds work. This is no conventional biodrama about the tortured artist, but very much the film that lovers of Wallace’s dazzlingly perspicacious fiction and essays would want.
Over the opening scenes, Jesse Eisenberg, playing Lipsky, describes reading Wallace as feeling “your eyelids pulled open,” and providing the actual sensation “of being David Foster Wallace.” That process of osmosis is an accurate enough description of what the filmmakers achieve, invaluably assisted by Jason Segel’s heartbreaking portrayal of the writer. This is a man of endless contradictions; he’s shaggy and sleepy-headed but sharp and always questioning, wryly candid but then unexpectedly defensive and guarded. The performance is easily Segel’s best work since “Freaks and Geeks,” devastating strictly on its own quiet terms.
While “The End of the Tour” is structured as a quasi-road movie with a post-mortem framing device, in many ways, this is not inherently cinematic subject matter. The film considers such intangibles as the illusory bond of friendship between ambitious interviewer and celebrated subject, professional envy, the loneliness of writing, the mental transference of reading, and the sheer exhilarating buzz of stimulating two-way conversation.
It also doesn’t shy away from the great themes that defined Wallace’s work, solitude in first position. It adopts the late writer’s perspective as the apologetic representative of a privileged, over-educated generation frequently destined to find disappointment in achievement. And it conveys the prescience of his vision of evolving information technology, foreseeing a future in which smart people would be in danger of spending their lives sitting alone, “immersed in pure unalloyed pleasure.” Essentially, this is a film about existential emptiness, and yet it’s beautiful and alive, as filled with humor as it is with melancholy.
Having read the rhapsodic reviews of Wallace’s encyclopedic 1,079-page 1996 novel Infinite Jest and then been somewhat crushed to find they weren’t exaggerating, Lipsky, himself a published fiction author of more modest success, pitched a feature to Rolling Stone, a magazine with scant history of profiling writers. He accompanied Wallace on the final leg of his book tour, but the interview was never published, its intimate revelations surfacing only later as a memoir following the subject’s untimely death.
The body language of the two leads could hardly be more of a contrast. Eisenberg is small and wiry, febrile in his intensity and always observing. He makes Lipsky both worshipful and slightly predatory, but he never loses the audience’s sympathy.
Segel’s large frame towers over Eisenberg. He ambles about in Wallace’s guise of granny glasses, straggly hippie hair wrapped in a bandanna, and anti-fashion apparel that marks him as resistant to his cresting fame, as does his unpretentious Midwestern speech.
For a movie that’s almost entirely driven by talk, this has a graceful fluidity thanks to Jakob Ihre’s elegant widescreen cinematography and Darrin Navarro’s editing, moving the action smoothly from place to place with unerring rhythm. And Danny Elfman’s gentle score serves to delicately coax out the story’s underlying sorrow.
“The End of the Tour,” an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for language including some sexual references.” Running time: 106 minutes.