***1/2 out of ****
We may want to leave it to the most intense bookworms out there to judge Jason Segel’s portrayal of renowned writer David Foster Wallace. My only experience with the author was through listening to him read his collection of essays, titled Consider the Lobster through an audiobook. He came across as a thinker, whose obsessive explorations of every subject he approached would be taxing, if his thoughts were not so engaging. Jason Segal plays Wallace as a man reluctant to go off on the tangents he will inevitably lunge into. If this movie doesn’t capture his real character, it still may reveal what he was like when under examination. No, I have not read his most celebrated work, Infinite Jest, which catapulted the writer into a world of fame.
James Ponsoldt’s new film is about Wallace’s struggle with becoming a star writer after that thousand-page novel was published. It is based on a novel by David Lipsky, which recounted five days during the winter of 1996, when he conducted a series of interviews with Wallace for Rolling Stone during a book tour.
Lipsky is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg with the determination of a reporter digging for details about his reclusive subject, conflicted with the fact that he is a fan. Wallace comes across as a ball of discomfort, considering all the possibilities, intentions, and outcomes of having agreed to this interview.
As a critic, I tend to worry if I fail to represent most moviegoers, when I voice my preference of a good conversation movie to a shallow action flick, rom-com, or biopic. Every genre has potential, but when a drama focuses on the power of an engaging conversation, I feel closer to understanding what Roger Ebert meant when he called movies, machines that generate empathy. A conversation is a raw bit of reality similar to what we experience every day. When a movie gives me the simulated privilege of spending time with a great artist and to hear this artist’s thoughts on the allure of fame, the fear of it, and the struggle to exist with a brain that just won’t shut up, I feel grateful. Focusing on one little corner of a great man’s life can be more telling than the misplaced ambition to try cramming all the highlights into one cinematic experience.
As the movie begins in 2008, Lipsky hears of Wallace’s suicide, which provokes the flashback to 1996 as he listens to recordings of their conversations. I felt as though this movie could have been more daring, if it had committed those flashbacks to only where the cassette recorder was rolling and left the words spoken in between to be expressed by Lipsky’s character in the present day, as he writes his book. I’m getting off track when I explain what a movie isn’t as opposed to what it is, but it also seems so close to taking this stylistic shape, that I’m sure the filmmakers danced around with the idea before arriving at a more conventional form that would be easier on an audience.
The End of the Tour is still a well-acted and honest film that probably does most audiences a favor by simplifying the eccentric personalities on display and it is among the better movies I’ve seen this year.