Jason Segel Awes In "The End Of The Tour"

Conversation is hard to get right on film. Few things are further removed from genuine human interaction than a writer sitting alone, pecking away at a keyboard. Revisions and read-throughs are an invaluable part of the process, but the rhythm and cadence of real-life dialogue is tricky to fake. James Pondsoldt’s “The End Of The Tour” is the rare film that goes right to the source, expertly playing transcripts of one particular interview like a cheat code.

In February 1996, reporter David Lipsky shadowed reclusive “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace for a full five days, paling around with the novelist both at home (Bloomington, Illinois) and away (a book tour stop in the Twin Cities). An unlikely quasi-friendship flowered, much of it chronicled in audio form on a portable cassette recorder.

These exchanges – intended for a Rolling Stone profile that never ran – sat dormant in polyester plastic ribbons for more than a decade, fated to dust collection. Until, in September 2008, the ever-troubled Wallace took his own life.

Lipsky naturally went to his recordings to reminisce, which turned into a book, which turned into a movie, each restoring a little bit of the life that was lost with Wallace’s passing. The film especially is an apt obituary, bottling both the lexical prowess and genteel spirit of a classically conflicted linguist.

As arranged by screenwriter Donald Margulies, the conversations that make up “The End Of The Tour” are both inconsequential and vital, exploring the paradoxes of art and fame, creation and self-destruction. Large swaths of the pic’s banter are the kind of transcendent tête-à-têtes that writers dream of.

But none of dialogue – real or embellished – would hit nearly as hard without a serendipitous lead performance.

Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) isn’t a revelation here only because he’s always been wonderful. From “I Love You, Man” to the “The Muppets,” his ability to balance cockiness with vulnerability has served him and audiences brilliantly. But never quite like this.

His David Foster Wallace walks up to the line of impression (complete with side-mouth talking) but stops there, instead focusing on the writer’s uneasy smile and gently stoic spirit. All at once a kind animal lover and ferocious defender of his and his family’s privacy, Segel sells the performance by not overselling it, comfortably meeting viewers halfway between imitation and obfuscation.

It’s not just the long locks, specs, and bandana that make Segel’s grasp of the role so convincing, but his ability to win over newbies and aficionados alike. He gets the essence of Wallace, be it the icon behind multiple thousand-word novels or the guy in old YouTube videos geeking out about David Lynch.

Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) is no spud either, playing Lipsky with grace, tactfully deferring when it’s clearly Segel’s moment and jumping back in when the screenplay calls for it. In fact, he gets one of the pic’s most charming scenes, falling victim to a rude awakening by his host’s duo of black labs.

It’s not Eisenberg’s most flashy role, but it is his most human. Acting is as much listening as it is talking, and he does it exceedingly well here.

The few supporting roles (Joan Cusack as an excitable driver, Mamie Gummer as an old friend of Wallace) get lost in the shuffle, but no matter. It’s a two-man show through and through, and the leads are more than enough to drive an admittedly sparse narrative.

Near the end of the film – with the two Davids entirely burnt out on one another – they silently wander through an airport parking lot, unable to find their car. It’s a startlingly simple, affecting summation of their volatile rapport. And after so many oral fireworks, the silence is deafening.

If the story isn’t exactly one to remember, viewers will feel like they know these two men long before the credits roll. By the end, they’ll consider them new friends. There’s no better evidence of a successful character piece.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: July 31, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: Donald Margulies
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)