PARK CITY – It would be wrong to pigeonhole Jason Segel as simply a comedic actor. Whether playing the romantically scorned Nick in “Freaks and Geeks” (or Peter in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), the psychotically romantically scorned Eric on “Undeclared,” the romantic but, in a key arc, grieving Marshall on “How I Met Your Mother,” Segel has always been able to infuse his clowns with a grounding of real pain or disappointment or passion.
But thinking back over Segel's resume, it was hard to point to any role that indicated Segel might be a chameleon. He's always come across as too large in stature, too modern in tone to be invited to do period films or biopics or really any kind of project skewed towards the dramatic.
I'd never have described Segel as limited in his acting range, but whether by his choice or Hollywood's perception of him, Segel's CV was dominated by one particular type of performance.
The perception is about to undergo a significant shift once audiences begin to be exposed to “The End of the Tour,” which debuted as part of the Premieres selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Friday (January 23) evening.
I haven't watched enough interview footage of David Foster Wallace to know if what Segel is doing in “The End of the Tour” is channeling the “Infinite Jest” author in a literal way, but it's still a transformative performance in terms of vocal timbre and cadence and in terms of physicality. Segel captures the intellect and loneliness and discomfort that we sensed Wallace to have and even when Segel plays Wallace's considerable sense of humor, the timing and rhythms are different from what he honed in his years on Judd Apatow productions.
Segel is equalled by Jesse Eisenberg, whose character may be even trickier at times, in James Ponsoldt's latest Sundance entry, which works in a smart and often soulful key, even if it also feels intimate and small.
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“The End of the Tour” begins in 2008 with writer David Lipsky (Eisenberg) learning of the death of David Foster Wallace (Segel). The tragedy sends Lipsky back to a box of tapes from five days he spent with the audience near the conclusion of the first promotional book tour for “Infinite Jest.” For Lipsky, it was a moment early in his career at Rolling Stone as he was still smarting from the relative disinterest in his own memoir. Wallace, meanwhile, was being celebrated with a once-in-a-generation hyperbole, though many aspects of his personal life, including rumors of a suicide attempt and heroin addiction, were the stuff of literati urban legend.
Donald Margulies scripted the film from Lipsky's book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace” and the evolving dynamic between the Davids is hard to ever fully identify, thanks in large part to the enigmatic performances by both leads.
There's more than a whiff of “Almost Famous” in the way Lipsky begs his way into an assignment on the road with Wallace, is determined to maintain his journalistic objectivity, moves into idolatry, but progresses into something even more simpatico. In lieu of Ben Fong Torres haranguing Lipsky about deadlines and whatnot, Ron Livingston plays Lipsky's Rolling Stone editor, who may or may not have a name.
At times, the relationship is purely author and subject, but as Wallace reminds Lipsky a couple times, he was no stranger to magazine profile writing himself. At times they're friends. At times Lipsky is worshipping Wallace. But there are also moments in which Wallace sees Lipsky's relative social ease and is either admiring or resentful, just as Lipsky is often resentful of Wallace's success, but also his disingenuousness or prickliness in answering questions.
Neither actor is especially worried about appearing unappealing in moments. Eisenberg's Lipsky, in particular, has a couple moments verging on almost malevolence, leaving open the chance that at that point in his life, he just wasn't confident enough in himself to be a nice guy. Lipsky has a troubled relationship with Sarah (a disappointingly wasted Anna Chlumsky, who is stuck as a phone presence for most of the movie), but isn't opposed to flirting with Wallace's grad school buddy Betsy (Mickey Sumner), a tactic that may be journalistic or may just be philandering. And Segel's Wallace is petty and paranoid and lonely and withholding, when he isn't being brilliant (and sometimes even when he is).
While “Almost Famous” is endearingly structured around William Miller's struggles to get Russell Hammond to go on the record, “The End of the Tour” is structured around a near constant interview between Lipsky and Wallace. Although Wallace initially requires that Lipsky give him a window to go back and retroactively declare things off-the-record, that's a prerogative he almost never uses. Instead, Wallace is regularly critiquing his own answers, making assumptions about how Lipsky will use his answers and worrying about how the answers will make him look in print.
Ponsoldt's achievement is in making conversations feel like a movie and not just a theatrical two-hander put on film, a la “Frost/Nixon.”
Lipsky and Wallace are constantly on the move, both on the tour stop in Minneapolis that makes up the center of the movie, but also as they navigate around Wallace's Illinois hometown, from favorite restaurants to convenience stores to the airport in Chicago. Each location is used to inform character and character interaction, as are the scenes in different rooms in Wallace's house or driving in Lipsky's rental car. You never sense Ponsoldt saying, “We need to move some place else so that this doesn't become stagnant.” From the Mall of America to a multiplex showing “Broken Arrow,” nothing is incidental. Ponsoldt knows he's going places for reasons and he knows that the dialogue and the performances are strong enough that he doesn't need to force urgency with editing or fancy camera moves.
In his now-regular jaunts to Sundance, that confidence has become a Ponsoldt trademark. A harrowing story about alcoholism that was full of broadly comedic performances and beats? It worked relatively well in “Smashed.” More alcoholic comedy, plus familial and relationship disfunction and a roadside shocker? It worked relatively well in “Spectacular Now.” So when Ponsoldt is willing to let two actors have long discussions in a restaurant booth or when that dialogue veers from pop culture driven banter into crushing laments about self-deception and addiction, that just feels like a logical step in his career progression. I'm more and more sure that Ponsoldt is building toward a the kind of great movie that earns Oscar nominations for him and his stars.
It's way too early for me to know if Segel is going to be in that award consideration 10 months from now. I'd have thought Mary Elizabeth Winstead deserved consideration for “Smashed” and that Miles Teller could have earned that kind of buzz for “Spectacular Now,” but that didn't happen.
I'm also not sure that “The End of the Tour” is that great move, that leap forward. Ponsoldt's restraint is in keeping with the scale of this story, but I'm going to need a few more days (or weeks or months) to chew on whether the story ends on a note of emotional profundity or reportorial gamesmanship. But thanks to Margulies and Ponsoldt and thanks to Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, “End of the Tour” mostly does right by David Foster Wallace, a not insignificant feat when you're dealing with a figure who generates such passion.