You have to wonder what David Foster Wallace was thinking when he consented to have Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky following him for five days in 1996 as he wrapped up his Infinite Jest book tour. Of course, it was a different world then. The internet was just starting to make inroads to world domination. Print was still king and Lipsky’s employer was a player. Whatever the reason, Wallace agreed to the epic interview. It never appeared in the magazine, but after Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Lipsky turned it into a book, Although OF Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. It is that book that serves as the basis of Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt’s riveting new drama The End of the Tour.
Jason Segel is perfectly cast as Wallace, enjoying and enduring the kind of success most writers never experience. Infinite Jest was one of those books that only comes along only once or twice in a generation, one that doesn’t just make an impact on critics and readers, but also on other writers. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) understands that. It’s one of the reasons he pitches the interview to his editor (Ron Livingston). But he is also both in awe and jealous of Wallace’s achievement. Lipsky himself has just published a novel, The Art Fair, to good reviews but little fanfare. Both men are whip-smart and competitive. Wallace is a little freaked out by the enormity of his success, counting the days until the tour ends, and now he has to deal with a reporter coming at him with the dogged determination of a zealous puppy nipping at his ankles. (Whatever the size differential between Wallace and Lipsky might have been in real life, the fact that Segel towers over the diminutive Eisenberg adds another layer of complication to the relationship that develops between the two men.)
Directing his Yale playwriting teacher Donald Margulies’ screenplay, Ponsoldt sets the stage as close to reality as possible, right down to shooting in northern Michigan in the frigid winter of 2014 mirroring the conditions of the 1996 interview. Just looking at the screen in some scenes can raise goosebumps. And with that stage set, Ponsoldt lets his actors loose. Under other circumstances, the two Davids might have become friends. They have enough in common, but between Lipsky’s barely concealed envy, Wallace’s wariness, and the differences in their stations in life, that just isn’t the cards. For five days, they make do with sometimes brilliant banter. The actors are both spot-on in their performances, but this is Segel’s movie and he delivers an outstanding performance as a complex man navigating the unfamiliar territory of sudden fame. Both he and the drama are pitch-perfect in a film that pays homage not just to a great writer but to the art of conversation. –Pam Grady