“This conversation is the best one I ever had,” David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) tells us as The End of the Tour wraps up, and the movie, a pleasantly talky chamber piece, gives us welcome bursts of it. That long chat, with a David Foster Wallace (Segel) abashed by the success of Infinite Jest, gets more screentime than you might expect but not as much as you might hope, especially after its rousing early peak: Wallace explaining why he’s pinned to the wall of his college-town ranch house a poster of Alanis Morissette. “A lot of women in magazines are pretty but not erotic because they don’t look like anyone you know,” Wallace observes — but Alanis? Then he demonstrates how he imagines Morissette might chow down on a sandwich, and admits that even though he’s now famous he could never try to contact Morissette, not even for an innocent date for tea.
Wallace the writer of brilliance was also a man you might know: shrugging, a little shy, his wardrobe a shambles, his taste in movies egalitarian enough that he'll rave about John Travolta's death in Broken Arrow. Unlike Lipsky or Jonathan Franzen, you can see him eating that sandwich, wolfing McDonald's, eagerly ordering Diet Rite, that champagne of RC. Late in the film Lipsky wonders whether Wallace's everyday American ordinariness is some kind of performance, a rejection of all pretension that is itself a condescending pose. But those opening reels make clear that Segel's Wallace just likes what he likes, what he's comfortable with — and the talk springs from it, vaulting in one inspired run from junk food to Die Hard to masturbation to Wallace's pained belief that, as technology improves, we'll be ever more isolated from one another. What in us will die when sex itself becomes more pleasurable with a computer than a partner?
Loneliness is the theme in The End of the Tour, a film of people not quite connecting. We see the great novelist requesting that the audience at a reading not be allowed to pepper him with questions. He notes, to Lipsky, that he would be open to sex with lit groupies if only they would handle all the embarrassing parts: the approach, the come-on, the setting-up of the assignation.
Lipsly and Wallace were warily friendly. In 1996, Lipsky, a novelist and Rolling Stone reporter who's presented here as so Upper East Side–provincial that he's shaken up by Soho and Pulp's "Common People," journeyed to Bloomington, Illinois, on Jann Wenner's dime to interview Wallace, a writer whose success he begrudged. Lipsky envies Wallace's success, but Wallace seems to envy Lipsky's ease, with publishing and with women — and sometimes to think of that ease as something put-on and un-humble. "I don't want to appear in Rolling Stone looking like I want to be in Rolling Stone," Wallace says, perhaps the most succinct summation of Nineties alt-culture's pained ambivalence toward fame: He wrote an 1,100-page novel, but don't think he's, like, trying too hard.
The talk continues, much of it transcribed from the real Lipsky's tape recordings, in cars, hotel rooms, the Mall of America, and Midwestern houses and apartments decorated with old furniture — the kind that's simply worn, rather than vintage. These scenes are smartly staged, attentive to every subtle slight these touchy men score off each other, especially in front of women. (Since the perspective is Lipsky's, Illinois and Minnesota are mostly out of focus, just a backdrop for Wallace.) But that conversation peters out as the film grinds on, the men getting competitive and the camera nosing into their faces. Everyone involved sifts the material a little too hard for clues to Wallace's eventual suicide.
Eisenberg is typically strong as a prickly, ambitious, somewhat jealous writer endowed with the kind of authoritative presence Wallace couldn't really muster. Segel's Wallace doesn't quite seem to believe he has become the great new American novelist, which is fitting since Segel himself sometimes looks like he can't quite believe he's supposed to be Wallace. Segel seems downstream from the words he speaks rather than at their headwaters — like us, he's keeping up. His performance is tasteful, careful, almost shyly un-definitive — he seems to share Wallace's humility about greatness. At times I wished that this material might have been developed into a play rather than a movie, that we might over the course of years see actor after actor pass through the part, each finding and sounding different notes. Those notes Segel hits seem true, especially Wallace's solitariness and his flights of geeky high spirits, but they never seem like enough notes — like Segel has filled in the full chord. It's hard to imagine Segel's Wallace logging the hours to finish his novel.
Segel seems most comfortable in the film's final, most conventional scenes, when he's given a big, actorly speech, full of wisdom and pain. It's an excellent movie moment — but does life build this cleanly to air-clearing speeches that could serve as audition pieces? Did Infinite Jest?