Think of the best raconteurs you’ve known in your life. Chances are good that they had mastered the art of balancing performance with authentic personal communication. Sharp intelligence, broad life experience, facility with language, the ability to turn on a dime as inspiration strikes all play their parts; but the listener also seeks the payoff of the occasional glimmer of intimacy, of trust, of recognition as the hearer – that the storytelling can flow, like the Hudson, in both directions. It’s a rare and wonderful gift.
What’s perhaps rarer still is cinema that can capture this sort of primarily verbal interplay and yet still rivet the viewer’s attention, although unrelieved by physical action. Those of us who tend to prefer well-written dialogue to car chases usually look to the stage and the small screen to satisfy such appetites; the big screen cries out to be filled with movement that is not primarily of the emotional kind. So James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour is not going to smash any box-office records. But it may very well win Jason Segel – yes, that guy who was in a bunch of Judd Apatow bromances – the Best Actor Oscar this year.
Segel is heartbreakingly, stunningly good as iconoclastic author David Foster Wallace, 12 years before his suicide, hiding in a messy, unprepossessing ranch house in the Midwest, torn between profound loneliness and deep mistrust of his newfound fame. Frumpily dressed, stringy unwashed hair always bound in a “lucky” bandanna that the character admits is a psychological crutch, Wallace pushes people away even as he longs for connection, knowing that he’s a tough man to live with. When his Muse calls, he must answer, and anyone who gets close to him risks becoming collateral damage.
One who dares cross that line is less-successful author David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who talks his boss at Rolling Stone into an assignment to travel with Wallace on the last leg of the book tour for his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. After devouring the novel Lipsky is awestruck, starstruck, eaten by envy of this man who writes the way he wishes he could write, and wants desperately to get inside his head, if only for the few days that it takes to research his profile. The End of the Tour is an exquisitely choreographed depiction of the dance that these two do, now tentatively approaching, now pulling back in a dizzyingly cerebral and sometimes-wrenching journalistic do-si-do. Which is a true wound revealed, and which a mask, a pose?
As rendered in the screenplay by the very fine playwright Donald Margulies, Wallace is a man whose tendencies toward depression and addictive behaviors are inextricably entwined with his off-the-charts level of intelligence. But this is no garden-variety “tragic tortured genius” yarn. The fame and appreciation for his talent that Wallace craves are simply the burr in his britches that he can never ignore. He knows that a novelist is only as good as his last book; that the more praiseworthy his achievements, the higher the bar that he must clear next time. And he wants to be loved for the person he is, in person, and not his authorial voice, however brilliant and self-revelatory that might be. Gradually, disarmingly, he unveils bits of this existential dread to his interviewer, only to shut himself with a snap whenever Lipsky probes too raw a spot in his psyche.
Eisenberg also does a very fine job as the yearning wannabe, torn in his own way between the interviewer’s game of trying to lure the badger out of his hole with tasty bait in order to get him to admit things (notably, his boss wants him to find out the truth of rumors about Wallace’s past heroin addiction) and a more genuine desire to become friends with the writer whom he admires so intensely that it’s almost a crush. Imagine a bromance directed by Ingmar Bergman, in which two bright 30-something guys explore bleak, somber inner landscapes while bonding over TV, cigarettes, French fries and Pop-Tarts. In his Holmesian professional attention to such details as the contents of Wallace’s medicine cabinet, Lipsky teeters on the brink of becoming a stalker, a voyeur; it’s off-putting, and yet we the audience, who are Salieris at best to the world’s few Mozarts…we get it.
Actually, it might be more accurate to characterize Wallace, as embodied by Segel, as his own Salieri, sabotaging himself at every turn with a terror that he will ultimately be found out as the “fraud” that he imagines himself to be. At one point he jokingly tells a tour handler that Lipsky’s name is Boswell, but that doesn’t quite hit the mark either. Lipsky is more the Wally Shawn to Wallace’s André Gregory: the encouraging enabler to an intermittent geyser of head-spinning philosophical revelations of a life deeply lived, albeit mostly internally.
So if you are the sort of moviegoer who found yourself able to sit through My Dinner with André without checking your watch more than once or twice, you will find The End of the Tour an emotionally powerful, thought-provoking thrill ride through one of the great minds of modern literature. And if you appreciate extraordinary acting, you won’t want to miss Segel’s achingly mesmerizing performance.
The End of the Tour can be seen at 5:50 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. Thursday, August 27, at 9:10 p.m. Friday, August 28 and Saturday, August 29, and at 8:10 p.m. Sunday, August 30 at Upstate Films Rhinebeck, 6415 Montgomery Street, Route 9, in Rhinebeck. For more information, call 845-876-2515.