Review: ‘The End of the Tour’ sees Jason Segel do right by David Foster Wallace

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.

[More after the break…]

“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.