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Film Review: "The End of the Tour"

Consider the writer


The journalistic relationship between interviewer and interviewee is complex, delicate, and often precarious. On one hand, writer and subject are simply strangers making conversation -- as benignly normal a situation as one can imagine. But they've each been forcibly entered into this exchange, by necessity bringing their own (often opposing) agendas to the table. The writer has an editor to please, one who's looking for their employee to pry some compelling information from the subject; meanwhile the subject is tasked with selling themselves for publicity, which will in turn make their further success possible. The interviewee wants to maintain a semblance of privacy, while accepting the knowledge that their responses will be judged (sometimes harshly) by the general public once the interview hits newsstands. Step wrong, and there's a good chance readers will eat you alive. Let me tell you: as a writer, the interviewing process is a constant, desperate struggle. Boo hoo, writing is hard.

"The End of the Tour" examines this precise relationship, in this particular case between writer David Lipsky and author David Foster Wallace. Based on Lipsky's book, "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," about his experience of interviewing Wallace, director James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now," "Smashed") and screenwriter Donald Margulies handle the material with a brutal honesty and insight.

Given a probationary job at Rolling Stone, Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is assigned to spend five days with Wallace (Jason Segel) as he completes the last leg of his book tour following the release -- and massive success -- of his postmodern epic, "Infinite Jest." Lipsky will travel to Wallace's home in Illinois, where the author lives and teaches creative writing at Illinois State University, then accompany him to Minneapolis for his last stop on the tour.

The film unfolds as a road trip variation on "My Dinner with Andre," in which a discussion about life and art unfurls not over a single dinner, but over the course of several days spent in airplanes, over meals of McDonald's and gas station junk food, and at one point while wandering through the Mall of America. Unlike that earlier film, the participants aren't close friends catching up, but strangers forced into a relationship that has the deceptive outside appearance of intimacy.

That Lipsky is himself an author, whose recently released book "The Art Fair" was met mostly with indifference, colors their talks with an undercurrent of jealousy. Each of us desire some sort of recognition that we're doing good work, and in many ways Lipsky wants exactly what Wallace already has. Wallace himself is uncomfortable talking about his newfound fame, feeling as though he's betraying his integrity and selling out by even participating in an interview. Though candid in many respects, he often turns cagey during his conversations with Lipsky, eying the blinking red light of his profiler's tape recorder with a great deal of suspicion.

Margulies captures the charged push and pull in these exchanges, as Lipsky receives pressure from his editor (Ron Livingston) to bring up Wallace's depression and address rumors of addiction -- because that's where the real story is. Their talks swing between intimate and invasive, and as the days go on, the conversation turns passive-aggressive as their subtle jabs at one another turn increasingly less so.

In a rare dramatic role, Jason Segel doesn't so much impersonate David Foster Wallace as inhabit him, adopting the persona of someone who's achieved a level of success most people have no hope of ever attaining, but finds he still wants something more. There's been some discussion about the accuracy of the film's portrayal of Wallace, with friends and family of the author saying that the portrayal bears little resemblance to the man they knew. I can understand those objections, but you could change the names of its characters and the film would be just as true in its ideas about loneliness, depression, and the male ego.

Segel brings the author to life as a human being, even if that person isn't specifically the David Foster Wallace those who knew him remember. Eisenberg is a polarizing performer, and he uses his prickly screen persona to his advantage here, portraying Lipsky as an ingratiating and often unlikeable presence, never more so than during a scene where he berates his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky), after her phone call with Wallace goes on longer than Lipsky feels appropriate. Beneath it all, we sense the envy the writer feels as he's forced to confront the realization that the level of success Wallace has achieved will in all likelihood remain just beyond his grasp.