Wow. As much as I’ve come to expect strong work from filmmaker James Ponsoldt and actor Jesse Eisenberg, I was absolutely blown away by Jason Segel‘s performance in The End of the Tour. He is so good here playing David Foster Wallace that you immediately forget all of his fine comedic work and just buy him as the reclusive author. Eisenberg is excellent too, but Segel just goes above and beyond in the sort of way that you only see a few times in a given year. Both performances bounce off one another beautifully and Ponsoldt keeps the focus on the interactions between the two, making this as much a play as a movie. It’s still very cinematic in its own way, but the emotions are all character based, which I loved. The impending tragedy is never far from our minds, but the moment in time captured here is well before that event, a decision that I think only further infuses the work with emotion and power. Easily one of the ten best things I’ve seen in 2015 so far, The End of the Tour is just beautiful.
The film is a chronicle of the five-day long interview session that Rolling Stone writer and author in his own right David Lipsky (Eisenberg) did with cult author David Foster Wallace (Segel). We meet Lipsky as he learns of Wallace’s death and his reminiscing of the events a decade early make up the remaining run time. Lipsky is headed to Wallace’s home to join him on the final leg of a book tour for Infinite Jest and write a profile for his magazine. When he arrives, he meets Wallace and finds him both disarmingly normal and brilliantly observational, with an undercurrent of depression and loneliness just below the surface. The tape recorder turns on, and the two begin chatting about all manner of things. Lipsky is the type of journalist who wishes he could write fiction as well as Wallace, so there’s jealousy at play too, though he’s fascinated by the man overall. During long car rides, meals, and just moments on the couch, Lipsky attempts to find out what really makes DFW tick, something the latter is acutely aware of and trying to avoid. The connections they make with each other, along with occasionally those made with either the woman driving them around on a trip to a few interviews (Joan Cusack), well, that forms the main pleasures here. If it sounds like The End of the Tour is a dry experience, trust me when I say that it’s not. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and profound, all in equal measure.
Regardless of how much you know about Wallace (and I had only read a tiny bit of his work), Jason Segel gives an iconic performance as the late genius. Again, The End of the Tour doesn’t focus on DFW’s death, but knowing what would befall the man years later gives the performance an extra haunting quality. Segel makes the character like a friend you wish you got to see more. He’s quirky, super emotional, and just feels both like a brilliant writer as well as a real three-dimensional person. It’s easily one of the five best bits of acting that I’ve seen this year and might even be the best so far. In a just world, this performance of Segel’s would be a lock for one of the Best Actor slots at the Academy Awards. Jesse Eisenberg is no slouch either, trust me there, he just isn’t playing a very likable character. Segel and the filmmakers make Wallace someone you’re curious about, but also protective of, so when Eisenberg’s Lipsky starts digging deeper than he probably should, the discomfort is palpable. In broad strokes, this role is something Eisenberg has tackled before, but it’s still one of this most polished turns and incredibly effective. Their chemistry is excellent as well, which is essential for what’s basically a film with just two characters. The aforementioned Joan Cusack does show up and there’s basically cameos by Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Ron Livingston, and Mickey Sumner, but by and large it’s just the wonderful one two punch of Eisenberg and Segel.
With each outing, James Ponsoldt is becoming a stronger and stronger filmmaker. After impressing in smaller ways with Off the Black and Smashed, he blew me away with The Spectacular Now and again he does the same here. Taking a quietly devastating script by Donald Margulies and crafting it into a film where you sit riveted by conversation is no easy task, but Ponsoldt is up to the challenge. Again, this is like spending time with two fascinating people you wish would never stop speaking. In a just world, the movie itself would be up for Best Picture and Segel would be a lock for Best Actor, but time will tell in that regard.
I could go on and on about the pleasures found within The End of the Tour, but I want to keep my rave on the vaguer side in order to have you remain as curious as possible about the flick. Even without Segel’s brilliant performance, this would still be a really good film, but he helps to really make it great. My fingers are crossed that it manages to find an audience, which in turn will convince the Academy to give it a real chance. It deserves tons of accolades, but for now, this one enthusiastic review will have to suffice. Don’t miss it.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!