Maybe I’ll actually get to reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, soon. Oh, I’ve had a copy for almost twenty years–purchased back when it was the hot, new read for Manhattanites (I lived in a nearby suburb) in the late 1990’s. But it was just so daunting, that I never managed to get to the gargantuan beast. Over a thousand pages for something like Stephen King’s “It” is one thing. Absorbing a sprawling magnum opus, that has garnered a reputation for being one of the most important novels of the last century, is entirely another. At 30, I was almost afraid of it. Hitting 50 recently, I believe I’m now ready.
Of course, when Mr. Wallace took his own life in 2008 (not a spoiler btw, the film alerts you to this in its opening minutes), his work became trendy once again. In fact, some critics who partially dismissed him the previous decade, reevaluated his work–some even while he was still amongst us. So, how to play a widely acknowledged genius? Dare I report that 35-year-old Jason Segel, known chiefly for his more comedic work, seems to have figured it out quite adroitly in James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour”. Part uncomfortable physical bulk…part aloof, yet obvious, high intellect–it’s a winning characterization. This will change his career trajectory–you can bank on it.
It’s 1996, and writer David Lipsky (a strong Jesse Eisenberg) convinces his editor at Rolling Stone magazine to send him to interview novelist David Foster Wallace (Mr. Segel), who’s in the midst of a book tour for his game-changing creation, Infinite Jest. When Mr. Lipsky meets Wallace at his less-than-modest, rural Illinois home, he finds an unassuming, downbeat, university writing teacher. He’s mid-thirties, unkempt, and masks the top of his head with a bandana–an affectation that he doesn’t want to seem like a “thing”. Sometimes easy to interview, as well as record, while at others reluctant and untrusting, Wallace proves a unique challenge for Lipsky. Travelling together at the tail-end of the Infinite Jest promotional tour, the men’s time together exposes some elusive details, that lead to a better understanding of trials yet to come.
It’s mostly the interaction between the two men that dominates “The End of the Tour”, but there’s also enough time from some strong female support work from Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner (Sting’s kid) and Mamie Gummer (Streep’s kid). And I have often been crazy about the oft-reliable Joan Cusack, but I found her portrayal of Patty, the tour co-ordinator, highly affected and somewhat unconvincing. Joan C. usually delivers–so, II’ll give her a pass this time. Movies about writers are tricky, but Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies is up to the task with his rewarding screenplay. Writing is an insular activity, and the film knows it. So, the chemistry of these two characters is paramount to the feature’s success. Eisenberg and Segel provide. And “The End of the Tour” does too.