It takes nothing away from “The End of the Tour” in labeling this Jason Segel/Jesse Eisenberg dramedy a “bromance.” Segel, the master of that genre on film (“I Love You, Man”) and TV (“How I Met Your Mother”), dons a bandana, wears his hair long and becomes the guy Eisenberg’s buttoned-down novelist/magazine reporter longs to be in this film, based on a true story.
But while it’s no stretch to imagine Segel as an interview subject you’d fall for, and it’s no stretch at all seeing Eisenberg as a smart, arrogant nerd interviewing a more famous writer and swallowing his jealousy, it is shocking how good Segel is as the self-serious, witty and utterly literary “regular guy” novelist David Foster Wallace.
James Ponsoldt’s film, based on the David Lipsky memoir, tells the story of Wallace’s 1996 peak — when his thousand-page “satirical quiz kid opus” “Infinite Jest” caught the zeitgest and earned raptorous comparisons to Hemingway and J.D. Salinger. Lipsky (Eisenberg), a young, obscure novelist with a reporting gig at Rolling Stone, asks to be assigned to profile this hyped hero of publishing, catching him at the end of a wintry book tour in the midwest, where Wallace called home.
The younger writer finds the 34 year-old college professor living in snowy Normal, Illinois, sharing his house with two black Labrador retrievers and modestly apologizing for not being a more entertaining lecturer or interview subject. His principal vices appear to be TV (he can’t have one, or he’d watch compulsively and never writer) and junk food.
But there’s a guarded side to him, which surfaces over four days of interviews and just hanging out. He’s concerned about image, wants to be profiled in Rolling Stone but doesn’t “want to look like I WANT that.”
And Lipsky, ordered to get the dirt on rumors of mental breakdowns and heroin by his editor (Ron Livingston) and perhaps annoyed that his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) idolizes Wallace, bears down. Eventually.
Director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now,””Smashed”) has never made a bad movie, never filmed a story that’s not gimmick free or completely compelling on a human scale. Here, he’s filmed a chess match — Wallace expanding on the cultural emptiness and loneliness his book taps into, explaining away his unmarried status, the fact that he prefers Illinois State University to New York, Lipsky circling back around to those inner demons that surely must drive this man, which might explain why Wallace is more accomplished than him. Resentment flutters back and forth in the questions, the way Lipsky rides Wallace’s coattails on tour (and flirts with Wallace’s female fans).
Segel lets Wallace’s mercurial nature pop up in flashes of anger over “how I’m coming off,” at the hostility and jealousy he fears will color this profile. Eisenberg does what he does best — suggesting intelligence, arrogance and the sense that he will never be as famous or “handsome” as his foil.
“End of the Tour” is basically one long interview, remembered in flashback by Lipsky, consulting his old interview tapes after Wallace’s death. But Ponsoldt makes the interview a moveable feast of junk food, road trip soft drinks and all-night chain restaurants. Groupies and dogs pass through it. Joan Cusack plays a driver who escorts the writers through Minneapolis.
And we get serious insight not only into Wallace, who was smart, quick and endlessly quotable, but into the reporter’s craft. Lipsky notes details about diet, decor, Wallace’s crafted casualness and passion for Alanis Morisette.
There’s little action in this, and even the “gotcha” moments feels muted, civilized. Lipsky was, much of the time, falling in love with his new “bro.” But “The End of the Tour” still manages fireworks and beautiful insights into the personas writers build for themselves, and how even intensive interrogation sometimes cannot plumb the soul, talent and despair of the brightest literary lights, the ones destined to self-destruct before they ever have the chance to flame out.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Cast: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky
Credits: Directed by James Ponsoldt, script by by Donald Margulies, based on the David Lipsky book. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:46