By Ray Pride
In James Ponsoldt’s magnificent, minimalist “The End Of The Tour,” Jason Segel plays a writer named “David Foster Wallace.” Not, David Foster Wallace. A modest caveat before offering praise after reading objections from the late writer’s estate.
I’m taking this character as “Dave,” instead, if I may: truths may be obtained in this bittersweet, tender simulacrum of a few days in his life. A little while after the 1996 publication of “Infinite Jest,” Rolling Stone assigned novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) to spend five days on the road, at the end of his book tour, with David Foster Wallace. Rolling Stone didn’t run the article, but Lipsky eventually published transcripts of the recordings between pesky journalist and sensitive author as a book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace,” which is the basis for the dense, delicious screenplay by Donald Margulies (“Dinner with Friends”). It’s a remarkable distillation of so many writerly phases of perception and self-deception, of ego and self-abnegation, of assertion and unyielding, inexorable doubt.
Ponsoldt, one of America’s best young career filmmakers, whose earlier films include “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now,” writes in a director’s statement, “biopics have a tendency to flatten out and reduce the complexity of a life. I usually have a fierce aversion to them. This is more like a snapshot of two lives taken over just a handful of days. The script is largely if not entirely based on the actual recorded conversations, so the veracity isn’t really debatable. It begins as a story about how a journalist approaches an elusive subject, but that story gets further complicated by ego, insecurity, jealousy, vulnerability and admiration. Ultimately, it becomes a kind of platonic unrequited love story.”
Their first meeting is terse. When the shitty cassette recorder’s first flicked on, Dave tells Lipsky, “Nah, do what you gotta do.” Crouching from his height, long hair encased in a bandanna, Segel’s focus simmers even when he plays it cool. He’s got the noticer’s gaze down. What Eisenberg’s got down is the mannerisms and motive of a certain sort of journalist, the insecure rat who doesn’t want to be caught out or trip up but who will eventually put a foot wrong. Eisenberg’s eyes trail as he watches Segel’s David: awe and admiration mingle with scrutiny in the most precise of performative detail. Margulies’ selection of specific and deliquescent word choices also offers uncommon delight, verbal felicities left and right as the two men earnestly hope to prompt some sort of truth or Truth or TRUTH from the pitched conversation.
Dave refers to a “fuckup quotient” early on, and Lipsky points out, “You agreed to the interview.” Motives are revealed as the men’s reserve peels away; they want words to not only be understood, and as their voice, but as figures of admiration. It’s some sort of seduction. They’re not outsmarting one another, the two Daves, they’re pushing and pulling and pinching to find a common ground, which only ancillarily is about selling that titanic brick of a book, clutched to the heaving bosoms of “obscenely well-educated” young men.
Diffidence rises to modest disdain at the cultural artifacts they encounter, and Dave says, “I don’t know about you, but I will love to leave this planet.” Segel sad-eyes for a second and Ponsoldt, quick observer of behavior that he is, holds that second longer. Ponsoldt is a flick-of-the-wrist editor. Foreshadowing? More world-weariness in a few words. “It’s so much easier having dogs,” Dave also says. Ponsoldt finds an image there in Dave’s tattered faculty housing: across the widescreen, Dave compacts his figure, flanked opposite the screen by a bare, lit bulb on a stalk of a lamp, a “ghost light” as they call it in theater, the light that must stay lit all night, every night. That’s a very specific interpretation (and there is a portrait of Wallace with a light like that) but even after ascribing it, it still holds mystery, an elusive weight. A side room, where Lipsky sleeps, holds erratic towers of “Infinite Jest,” almost like a LEGO construction, as if Dave, like a smaller boy, had toyed with their placement rather than piling Little, Brown cartons in the corner.
Not a composition errs. The spare but expressive frames and winter light are by Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who shot Joachim Trier’s exquisite first features, “Reprise” and “Oslo August 31st.” As the Daves drive across the not-so-featureless winter wilds of the Midwest, between central Illinois and Minneapolis, the song score (curated by Tiffany Anders) is sometimes thematically on the nose, but also feels like a muscular, occasionally ironic soundtrack to that moment. Cue R.E.M.’s “Perfect Circle,” Fun Boy Three’s “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days,” Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” and Tindersticks contributing a gorgeous cover of Pavement’s “Here” alongside a restrained Danny Elfman score.
They confide. Dave opens up about his life before his escape to teaching in this small city. “If I knew anyone was going to fuck up a suicide, it would be me.” Where was he then? The litany begins, “I would drink heavily, I would fuck strangers.” He takes stock of the tour, of the moment, at the end of the self-peroration to the unreliable witness. “David. This is nice. This is not real.” But words. But language. But hope. They’re real. And “The End Of The Tour” is the real deal, gorgeous tribute to the life of the mind, the fears of the soul, however much it may trespass on the memories of David Foster Wallace.
“End of the Tour” opens at River East, Landmark Century and Century Evanston on Friday, August 7 .
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.