There was a bit of a hullaballoo across the Internet when a cinematic adaptation of David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, titled The End of The Tour, was announced. Lipsky’s book chronicles his time with David Foster Wallace near the end of the Infinite Jest press tour. David Foster Wallace fans are the first to say that David Foster Wallace would not want a movie made about any portion of his life. This is probably true, though, just because Wallace, if he were still alive, would have objected to the idea doesn’t mean a movie shouldn’t be made. There are a lot of great movies made about people who probably didn’t love the idea of their lives being shared on a movie screen.
Another “problem” was that Jason Segel – an actor many people like just fine enough – was cast as Wallace. The subconscious rejection of Segel as Wallace, on the surface, actually kind of makes sense. Segel is best known for comedy, but this isn’t the problem. The problem is that people assumed this was Segel’s chance to give a dark and dramatic performance – you know, really play up the dark attributes of Wallace’s sometimes tortured life. This is understandable. David Foster Wallace is the greatest writer of our generation and Wallace’s admirers (which there are many; I am one of them) don’t want the funny guy from How I Met Your Mother and The Muppets coming in and ruining everything. (We’ll get back to Segel in a minute.)
James Ponsoldt (who is admittedly a huge fan of Wallace) has become one of the best directors working today. His last film, The Spectacular Now, addressed the nonchalance of youth, then turned that on its ear, creating an almost unsettling look at what it’s like to live your life as “the life of the party.” Here, Ponsoldt strikes the right balance of humor, sadness and humanity to truly create about as well done a profile of that particular moment in Wallace’s life as is possible.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky as an ambitious reporter who likes to consider himself a pretty darn good writer, until he reads Infinite Jest and realizes that Wallace is just on another plane of existence. He pitches a story idea about Wallace to Rolling Stone and winds up joining Wallace as he concludes his book tour. The two men seem to like each other well enough, though their differing personalities create a tension that can swerve from a true kinship to screaming matches. Lipsky knows that Wallace is immensely smarter than himself and resents that Wallace almost dumbs himself down for “regular folk.” Wallace, for his part, disagrees with Lipsky’s assessment and believes that being an “everyman” is what lets him hold on to his humanity. Wallace admits he’s bright, but truly believes he’s not that much smarter than the average person.
Personally, I think Jason Segel is a talented actor who has been waiting for a role like this for a long time. I didn’t feel trepidation, but I was certainly curious. Admittedly, the last thing I wanted to see was Segel “going for his Oscar” and really amping up Wallace’s demons. Instead, Segel portrays Wallace as a kind man who loves his dogs. He’s shy, but also clever and funny. Segel’s Wallace is certainly aloof, but probably anyone would be with a reporter following his every step. There’s a devilish nature to Segel’s performance that makes Wallace seem, more than anything … human.
The End of the Tour is a truly great film and the best I’ve seen at Sundance so far.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.