Movie Review: The End of the Tour is the best film of the summer

A great story for writers and the readers who love them.

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click to enlarge I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I: Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel engage in many a tasty tête-à-tête in The End of the Tour. - A24
I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I: Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel engage in many a tasty tête-à-tête in The End of the Tour.

The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt. With Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky and Joan Cusack
Now playing at Tampa Theatre

Whether you have a cursory familiarity with late author David Foster Wallace or have pored over his books and essays, you should leave The End of the Tour with a deeper understanding and admiration for the postmodern literary hero — and some keen insights into the often dysfunctional and hyper-vigilant brains of all writers.

The movie opens with Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, a novelist just hired as a Rolling Stone reporter. We learn in the film's first few minutes that Wallace has committed suicide, thus relieving the audience from gory details and maudlin overtures. Instead, the story unfolds organically in a flashback, ushered in by Lipsky's decade-old audiocassettes of an unpublished interview (the source material for the film's dialogue). 

Lipsky persuades his reluctant editor (a short but sweet cameo by Office Space's Ron Livingston) into letting him tag along with Wallace for the final five days of the Infinite Jest book tour. Almost unrecognizable, Jason Segel portrays Wallace with scruffy, long hair, wearing a faded bandanna just like the author's '90s-era headpiece. The actor might as well be propped with a neon sign above his head flashing "Oscar contender" and "Career-changing role."

Segel's award-luring performance, thankfully, is the only obvious aspect of the film. Adapted from Lipsky's memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, End of the Tour takes takes us from Wallace's home in rural Indiana to Minneapolis, with speaking engagements, book signings and an NPR interview along the way.

Segel is true to Wallace as a no-nonsense midwesterner, personable and sincere — a writer who was unflinchingly honest about his anxieties and social phobias, and detested the artifice of fame and literary elitism.

Wallace, who died in 2008, was inspired and beleaguered by his self-consciousness (as most writers are but he exponentially so). His circuitous observations beveled his prose with appositions and clauses that crystallized into enviable specificity. Wallace even said in an interview once that there should be as many words for "self-conscious" as Eskimos have for snow. 

Eisenberg's Lipsky is an urbanite who's more socially functional than Wallace but easily rattled. Whether on the road amidst stunning wintry landscapes or in Wallace's household dominated by two large black dogs, he and Segel's Wallace give us enough ear candy to make the movie worthwhile all on its own, plus surprisingly heartwarming bonding moments and conversational cat-and-mouse games borne out of two guys being covetous of each other. Paranoid, desperate to come off as authentic, they sometimes trip themselves up circumnavigating their words, trying really hard not to sound like douchebags. They're so riddled with neuroses that they envision their shortcomings as virtues in the other (and, of course, realize it the entire time). After they travel mates make some unfair assumptions and character-revealing faux pas, things come to a head around three quarters into the film. 

Director Ponsoldt, who in a former life worked in entertainment journalism, expertly captures the power struggle and anxieties around fame and self-promotion. We see Wallace loving, even craving the attention and detesting it at the same time — all revealed through micro-moments, idle comments and gestures — the way all movies should dispense character revelations; not through dramatic pauses, orchestral swells or gratuitous close-ups.

Speaking of music, Danny Elfman does a fantastic job with this score — gentle, often luminous, it's a million miles from Oingo Boingo and his Tim Burton films. We get to hear non-played-out treats by Brian Eno, R.E.M, Felt, Tracey Ullman, Tindersticks and The Fun Boy Three. 

Cameos and guest appearances include Joan Cusack as another adorably kooky middle-aged bookworm from the Midwest.

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