IFF Presents: “The End of the Tour,” a surprisingly successful David Foster Wallace dramedy

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The prospect of Jason Segel playing David Foster Wallace was, to put it nicely, daunting. Male college students and literary buffs—the two most vocal cohorts of Wallace fans—did not hesitate to express their chagrin that the stoner comedy fan favorite would be playing the enigmatic and genius Infinite Jest writer. Wallace’s family objected to the movie being made.

Fast forward two years: The End of the Tour premiered at Sundance on January 23 and is yet to be screened elsewhere, making the film an impressive grab on IFF’s part. The first of this week’s IFF screenings showed in the Martinos Auditorium in Granoff last night. The film is slated for a limited release in July. Boasting direction by James Ponsoldt, coming off of his critically acclaimed The Spectacular Now, and with its fair share of controversy, The End of the Tour was, if nothing else, tantalizing.

The good news is that Segel soars above expectations, delivering a surprisingly nuanced performance that brings Wallace’s words to life. And what words they are. The End of the Tour is an adaptation of David Lipsky’s 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the true account of Lipsky’s time shadowing Wallace during the last four days of the Infinite Jest book tour.

Playwright Donald Margulies’ screenplay maintains much of the book’s insight. Part hyper-intellectual buddy comedy chock-full of snappy dialogue and witty retorts with its fair share of laughs, part genuinely moving rumination on how writers grasp for meaning through their work, the screenplay is truly driven forward by Wallace’s words.

However, The End of the Tour received its fair share of Hollywood-izing. In the book, when Lipsky stopped recording, he indicated this and skipped to the next recorded portion of his interviewing. In the movie, these unrecorded portions become the backbone of the film’s dramatic arc; after all, an hour and a half of a transcribed interview has its cinematic limitations and was obviously ripe for some embellishment. These dramatic additions—which include a verbal scuffle between Wallace and Lipsky over an ex-girlfriend—do feel, at times, contrived. The movie is strongest when Wallace has his fingerprint most noticeably displayed.

Segel is mostly an effective vehicle for this, waxing poetic without devolving into maudlin puppet of a richly complex man. His portrayal of Wallace’s mental instability is subtle, and the “less is more” approach saves the movie from bastardizing its source material.

However, Segel has what I like to call Leo DiCaprio Syndrome. Leo DiCaprio Syndrome has a simple diagnosis: if you’re watching a movie and see an actor playing a character rather than that character, unadulterated and free of any of the actor’s recurring stylistic quirks, that actor has Leo DiCaprio Syndrome. Notable examples include Seth Rogen, post-AARP-membership Meryl Streep and Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lipsky.

While Eisenberg didn’t irk me quite as much as some (The Verge described feeling “overwhelming loathing…for Eisenberg’s portrayal of the author”), his coarse representation of Lipsky sucks some of the humanity out of an otherwise strong rapport between the two actors, who, combined, comprise 99 percent of the film. Some of Eisenberg’s uncouthness is clearly intentional, as the movie sets out to test the limits of a reporter/subject relationship—with searingly effective results, I may add.

At other times, Eisenberg uses his overbearing Social Network-esque awkwardness like a life boat, grasping onto it when he had nothing else to give to the scene. In especially heart-wrenching moments, Eisenberg is clearly outmatched.

Ponsoldt’s fingerprint is less distinct than Wallace’s, which may be a good thing. He has a penchant for taking derivative stories–that of an addict in Smashed, a high school romance in The Spectacular Now—and breathing new life into them. The End of the Tour is no different, with even its cheesiest moments landing relatively smoothly due to lyrical writing and total commitment from Segel. But this is not Ponsoldt’s movie; in attempting to let Wallace drive the car, Ponsoldt all but abstains from taking any directorial stance, stylistically or otherwise.

I was slightly uneasy seeing a movie about a man who actively fought fame, or at least wore it like an oversized coat. But The End of the Tour was a genuinely enjoyable, if at times painful, watch. And with a summer release date, a beautiful screenplay and a transformative performance from Segel on par with what Mud did for Matthew McConaughey, this movie is vintage, and deserving, Oscar bait.

To watch Segel talk about taking on this mammoth role with Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers, click here.

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