Jason Segel is so good in “The End of the Tour” you can almost smell him.
As the lumbering and thoughtful writer David Foster Wallace, Segel doesn’t imitate. He inhabits. Right down to the author’s warm cup of tobacco spit and his sugary sweat from a diet based on soda and Skittles.
Based on Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” the film follows Wallace and Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) on the author’s book tour in support of the groundbreaking 1996 novel “Infinite Jest.” Twelve years later, Wallace would commit suicide at the age of 46.
The film is just a long conversation between two guys. In a living room, a car, a diner and an airplane, Wallace waxes on about culture, reality, writing, addiction, shyness and detachment.
“I think if there’s a sort of sadness for people under 45,” Wallace says, “it has something to do with pleasure and achievement and entertainment. Like a sort of emptiness at the heart of what they thought was going on.”
As he did in “The Spectacular Now,” director James Ponsoldt sticks the viewer right in the middle of the conversation, sometimes to the point of discomfort. When Wallace and Lipsky are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in airline coach seats, the camera is positioned as if you’re a curious and eager child peering between the seats in front of them. On the road, when the two get into a tense disagreement over Wallace’s ex-girlfriend, you want to open the car door and jump onto the freeway.
“The End of the Tour” is “Before Sunrise” without the romance, “Frost/Nixon” without the ego and “My Dinner With Andre” with Eisenberg being slightly more annoying than Wallace Shawn.
If there’s a quibble with the film, it’s Eisenberg’s inclination to keep sticking a tape recorder right in Wallace’s face. Reporters who know better would make the tape recorder as inconspicuous as possible. Especially with a subject as self-aware and self-conscious as Wallace.
It’s a minor point, because the recorder also speaks to Lipsky’s desire not only to have what Wallace has but also to be him. Lipsky keeps looking at his little novel “The Art Fair” and longs for the attention being given Wallace and “Infinite Jest.” It’s as if he’s using the recorder to suck away some of the author’s mojo.
“The End of the Tour” is a simple but excellent little film that should get Segel some attention come awards season. Wallace devotees, mostly guys who have turned the author’s works into “Fight Club” for the literary set, may debate the authenticity of the performance — is Segel’s accent too broad or are the mannerisms exaggerated? But it’s likely Wallace would have wondered what exactly was meant by “authenticity,” snicker quotes and all.
But if the movie persuades someone new to read Wallace’s writings (or inspires a reader to give the daunting 1,000 pages of “Infinite Jest” another go) all the better.
(At Cinetopia, Glenwood Arts, Tivoli.)
Arts and entertainment editor David Frese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: DavidFrese.
‘THE END OF THE TOUR’
Rated R | Time: 1:46