Creating a biopic that stands out is hard. Thanks in part to the format’s popularity when it comes to awards season, they’ve become ubiquitous in recent years. What’s worse, they generally tend to follow a certain sweeping formula that tends to paint their subjects in broad strokes.*
That’s a part of what makes James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour so refreshing: instead of following a lengthy period of time, it focuses on a five-day period in his life from the perspective of a reporter following David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) on the last leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest. Instead of attempting to create a sweeping portrait of Wallace’s life, The End of the Tour is more like a snapshot of two men at different points of their professional success.
Not that the film doesn’t seem like it may be more traditional, at least at first. The film uses Wallace’s 2008 suicide as a framing device, which might hint at a series of flashbacks. Fortunately, the film only returns to 2008 at the end, instead keeping most of its focus in 1996. Writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a published author in his own right and a contributor for Rolling Stone, tears through Infinite Jest and pitches his editor on a profile piece on Wallace for the magazine. Securing his editor’s blessing, Lipsky makes his way to Bloomington, Illinois to first meet Wallace.
Over the course of five days, the Davids travel via car and plane to the Twin Cities and back, talking to each other about everything from fame to addiction to Die Hard while eating, smoking, and watching movies. Even though the article was never published, Lipsky kept the tapes of their conversations. After Wallace’s death, he took the tapes and used them as the base of his own memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Revisited in the context of the film, writer Donald Margulies has taken those conversations and shaped them to show two men in the same field sizing each other up and opening up to each other, their dynamics shifting constantly.
And boy, do those dynamics shift. Wallace is a complicated character, at times forthright and genial or defensive and evasive. He’ll claim to be ordinary, then show off his fierce intelligence. He provides thought-provoking answers, while also dodging some of the tougher questions that Lipsky asks. Meanwhile, Lipsky is both envious of Wallace’s success and awe-struck by him, and he struggles with both modes of thought in an effort to do his job.
Over a wide range of roles, Eisenberg’s played plenty of variations on neurotic characters. His portrayal of Lipsky pulls from these variations to convey his conflicting thoughts of jealousy, admiration, professional instincts and growing affection for someone who, in a different setting, might make for a good friend. Segel is the revelation here, though. Aside from physically transforming himself into a resemblance of Wallace, he engages more deeply with the underlying sadness that has informed his more notable film roles, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Between Smashed and The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt has established himself as a filmmaker worth watching. What he does with The End of the Tour, though, is nothing short of remarkable. The film does feature a handful of supporting characters who drift in and out, but as a whole, this is a two-man show that largely exists through dialogue. The little touches that Ponsoldt, Margulies, Segel and Eisenberg bring to how these scenes are crafted make them feel surprisingly real. The film’s insights into human interaction, and the various amounts of baggage brought in from different parties, makes this story more than just a film to draw in fans of Wallace, though. The experiences are more universal.