David Foster Wallace will always loom large.
To say nothing of his mega-talent for writing or a legacy solidified and amplified by his early death, the man was tall.
Jason Segel also has what it takes to match his stature, vertically and in acting brilliance, in “The End of the Tour,” a slice of the end of Wallace’s pre-fame life that finds Rolling Stone scribe David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) plumbing the depths of the soon-to-be-christened literary giant.
On one hand, Lipsky knows doing a feature on Wallace will do wonders for his own career. The do-ragged Wallace, working through the mental fatigue of the tour for his acclaimed “Infinite Jest,” acknowledges that try as he might to simply be himself, he cringes at not being able to control his own narrative.
It’s one thing to write a widely praised, 1,000-page tome — it’s another to have the trust to let your life be in the hands of a stranger, especially after years of struggling through alcohol, depression and drugs as DFW did.
If there’s a sense of the balance of power between interviewer and interviewer, as well as when those tables are briefly turned, it’s in that Lipsky is always the little man. Both he and his girlfriend appear dwarfed by Wallace’s book as they sit on their couch reading it ahead of David’s trip to see Wallace. The guest room in Wallace’s house is filled with stacks of his published work, towering over Lipsky. Even Wallace’s dogs are oversized. Wallace is Texas, Lipsky SoHo.
It’s a not-so-subtle way of showing Lipsky’s opinion of Wallace — he puts him in the same pantheon as Fitzgerald and Salinger in lauding the “experiential” qualities of his writing, finding the profound in the mundane.
Segel, in addition to capturing the vocal and aesthetic attributes of Wallace, nails the earnestness of the Midwesternisms that defined him — eschewing New York and the literary scene, affinities for junk food and ordering Diet Rite, always saying “pop,” never soda. Or Wallace’s anxious laugher when the subject of his own fame is broached.
“It really worries me that what I’m doing right now is like being a whore,” Wallace declares.
It remains difficult, as solid as Segel’s performance is, to reconcile how underdeveloped Lipsky is in his own story. It’s partially forgivable since the film acts more of a remembrance of Wallace than a tete-a-tete between these two men or a serious exploration of the power of conversation, à la “Frost/Nixon.”
It’s Wallace who brings Lipsky out of his shell — a dynamic that makes you question if Eisenberg’s uneasy performance is truly an act of showing a high-strung interviewer or simply the actor not straying from his nebbishy wheelhouse.
Meanwhile, Segel gives free-wheeling yet melancholic monologues as naturally as Wallace can be seen in YouTube videos and old episodes of Charlie Rose, offering prognostications about the growing loneliness of modern society. Watch and compare, and you may agree with me that this may be an Oscar-worthy act.
Director James Ponsoldt uses Segel and Eisenberg’s chemistry to carry through screenwriter Donald Margulies’ smart and snappy words to strong effect. Most of the film’s proliferate conversations are as organic as Segel’s own portrait of an artist who knows enough to warn his interviewer that a life of big successes can make even the tall man feel small.
“The End of the Tour” is rated R for language. One hour, 46 minutes. Three and a half stars out of five.