The celebrity interview in fiction is something that often gets fetishized, probably because it is so frequently fantasized. I have done a few myself, and it can be tough not to get carried away just by breathing the rarefied air of a talented artist. Rationalize the experience away as journalism, but that does not do justice to the nature of the interview.
It’s a transaction. An exchange of goods disguised as an exchange of words. A delicate dance. Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book “Eating the Dinosaur,” offered a deft explanation of just how these performances work. “The result (when things go well),” he wrote, “is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation.”
“The End of the Tour” makes a movie out of a journalistic conversation for the ages, a battle of wits on a more even playing field than usual. Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a minimally successful novelist who pays the bills for his aspirations of fiction writing by penning non-fictional articles for Rolling Stone. Somehow, he convinces his boss to let him go on assignment to profile another writer, the first time the magazine dares to feature a wordsmith in over a decade.
Lipsky’s subject is no average writer, though. He tags along with David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, at the last stop of his 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-page tome that reaps hyperbolic praise and adulation. After publishing such a novel, a kind of literary legend status extended to very few authors looms on the horizon.
While they deal with the occasional publisher’s rep or friend from Wallace’s college years, the majority of “The End of the Tour” plays out as a two-hander between Lipsky and Wallace. These are two extremely literate men both hyperaware of the roles they are expected to play in this scenario, and each tries to flip the script and steer the proceedings in their own way. And as the tape rolls on Lipsky’s recorder, they both know that they need to provide oral communication that will read as intelligent but not pretentious when ultimately transcribed into written communication.
For this back-and-forth seesaw of words and ideas, it makes sense for “The End of the Tour” to unfold like somewhat like a stage play. Screenwriter Donald Marguiles provides that to a certain extent, structuring the narrative as a set of discrete conversations with well-defined dramatic beats. He uses many words directly from the mouths of the real-life figures and really allows their ideas room for contemplation. (Those who have yet to read David Foster Wallace before the film will not feel lost, just more inspired to read him.)
Yet underneath the text lies a vibrant, potent subtext. The dialogue itself is engaging enough, and Marguiles raises it to the next level by adding tremendous thought about what motivates each man to say what he just said. Lipsky lets envy and a put-on inferiority complex guide how he approaches and questions Wallace, who himself grapples with the newfound pressures of maintaining a public-facing image. That, for a humble Midwestern man, proves particularly daunting.
Director James Ponsoldt does the honorable thing and largely gets out of the way of the script and the actors. He adds enough style and character to ensure “The End of the Tour” never becomes line recitation or filmed theater – but the aesthetic is not enough to grab attention. For this story, though, that is enough. Just simple choices like how far or close to put the camera to Segel and Eisenberg add the requisite amount of depth by permitting or denying intimacy based on proximity.
These varying levels most benefit Segel, who shows the more impressive range of the two. As soon as Lipsky packs a paperback copy of his own unsuccessful novel along to potentially give his subject, it becomes clear that Eisenberg will play a combination of obsequiousness and jealousy. But Segel’s Wallace is a different animal entirely, one much harder to pin down. Part of that just comes naturally from the script, which Marguiles frames through Lipsky’s point of view and thus portrays Wallace through his subjective lens.
Point of view alone, however, cannot account for how beguiling and enticing Segel comes across. He shocks with his dynamism and fluidity, at one moment resembling the affable everyman from “I Love You, Man” and then quickly pivoting to a cagey, unexpectedly defensive position. Segel is no stranger to agitation, having performed it plenty in comedy, but he laces it with such sadness and fear in “The End of the Tour” to give a new meaning to a familiar sensation.
He’s entirely convincing as an ordinary man with extraordinary talents. At the end of the film, it’s unclear what Segel sells best: David Foster Wallace’s unique take on the distinctly American syndrome of empty consumption, or his own acting prowess. A- /