“The truth will set you free but not before it’s finished with you.” – David Foster Wallace
To really get the depth of the performance Jason Segel delivers as David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour you have to watch David Foster Wallace himself. Segel has perfected Wallace’s unique dialect and subtle style of speaking but if that was all it amounted to then The End of The Tour would be nothing very special. Yet another masturbational deep dive into an enigma that can neither be understood nor explained. Indeed, if you are looking for rabbit-hole like truths to emerge from The End of the Tour you will be just as lost when the journey ends as you were before it began. The quality Segel captures that is bigger and more important than the way Wallace sounded is the expression of the type of person who sees everything, hears everything, feels everything.
The level of sensitivity Wallace possessed is the kind that is often unable to survive this hideous world. It is no wonder that depression took its toll and took his life. Depression can be the result of chemical imbalance but is also, often times, the only reasonable response to the fundamental corruption inherent in the American system. It’s not a corruption you can see and touch. It’s not actionable. It is woven into the fabric of our upbringing as Americans, the raw deal we’re sold on who we are supposed to be as defined by what we are supposed to buy. Clearly, Wallace saw it all, felt it all and had trouble eliminating it from his mind when he needed to.
Segel’s portrayal of Wallace, then, isn’t so much an explanation of who this brilliant writer was but rather, an artist’s rendering, an impressionist’s take, on what kind of person could have lived like that and wrote like that.
Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, an author and Rolling Stone journalist who is tasked with interviewing the elusive Wallace as his book tour for Infinite Jest is coming to a close. The two become kind of friends in that weird way a journalist invited to take part in intimate conversations can become your friend. You know it’s mostly all on the record, even if you beg for it not to be. You know that the story will always matter more than the friendship. Always. You know that there is a good chance you’re going to feel screwed because you can’t control the way they see you and you can’t control what their editors want them to write about you. You can’t control “the story.”
Eisenberg is playing a guy whose biggest claim to fame will be that he was that close to greatness. He’s like that young writer who followed F. Scott Fitzgerald around during his last days as a drunken Hollywood screenwriter, or anyone who had occasion to party with Hunter S. Thompson, or enjoyed a brief affair with JD Salinger. Their purpose in recording what they witness is either to help build a legend, or tear it down. The point is, they were there with the sober eyes of someone who CAN live in a world that their subject (and temporary friend) cannot.
It is always a pleasure watching Eisenberg on screen and you will be hard pressed to find two actors who play so harmoniously off of each other as he and Segel do here. Like most movies we will be studying this year as it heads towards the Oscar race, the women involved don’t really count except in the ways that they prop up or help transform the men. Still, the symbiosis of these two writers is interesting enough to hold the movie together with such equitable rapport that it never feels like a lopsided telling of the human and the artistic experience.
What Segel does best with his incarnation is to illustrate the constant affliction Wallace clearly suffered by being self-conscious and feeling like a constant outsider. This passage exemplifies how he wrote:
YEAR OF GLAD
I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.
I am in here.
Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon. These are three Deans – of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom.
I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.
I have committed to crossing my legs I hope carefully, ankle on knee, hands together in the lap of my slacks. My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X. The interview room’s other personnel include: the University’s Director of Composition, its varsity tennis coach, and Academy prorector Mr. A. deLint. C.T. is beside me; the others sit, stand and stand, respectively, at the periphery of my focus. The tennis coach jingles pocket-change. There is something vaguely digestive about the room’s odor. The high-traction sole of my complimentary Nike sneaker runs parallel to the wobbling loafer of my mother’s half-brother, here in his capacity as Headmaster, sitting in the chair to what I hope is my immediate right, also facing Deans.
The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me. Passed a packet of computer sheets by the shaggy lion of a Dean at center, he is peaking more or less to these pages, smiling down.
Segel embodies Wallace in ways interviews cannot. And therein lies the true genius of what Segel has achieved as a now serious actor. We know tragedy is comedy’s shadow. Thus, it should come as no surprise whenever so-called “comedic actors” try their hand at serious acting. There is never a false moment when you stop seeing David Foster Wallace, where you stop thinking about this gentle, talented, wildly brilliant man whose life ended too soon.
There is some talk that Segel will be in the supporting category because we all know how impossibly crowded the Best Actor field is going to be. Already I can see how these subtle, beautiful portrayals of Brian Wilson by Paul Dano and now Wallace by Jason Segel might be forgotten in the sheer number of Great Men Doing Great Things roles that will steal center stage in coming months. It doesn’t really matter of course whether either of them gets a gold statue. What matters is that people see the films an appreciate how these performances have preserved the vital contributions these men made to music and literature.
The premiere for The End of the Tour last night was low key, held at the tastefully renovated Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Afterwards there was a party on the rooftop of some swanky hotel. You could only get to the top by stuffing into a small elevator that took you there. It was packed, with partiers framing an aqua pool. The flat Los Angeles skyline surrounded us in all directions, blanketed with the twinkling lights of millions of people going somewhere, leaving somewhere, saying goodnight to someone. As much as David Foster Wallace would have felt awkward and out of place there, he likely would have appreciated that we were all there to praise Segel and his co-stars, and the film’s director for taking a tale that might have been simple and transforming it into mythology.
The End of the Tour at its essence is really just two people talking, each trying to sound smarter than the other, a journalist pretending to have an actual relationship with someone he’s supposed to be writing about, a self-conscious writer pretending to have an actual conversation and trying to resist hitting his internal panic button about how he’ll come off. They both are named David. They both are writers. One destined to be remembered for his genius and the other destined to be remembered for his brief brush with that genius. The dreadful irony always comes back to the simple fact that those who can write like a dream can rarely live a normal, happy reality. Those who live normal, happy lives can never write like that. It’s a truth worth setting free, but not until it’s finished with you.