At one end of the movie spectrum, there’s the visceral pow of bodies and machines in motion — pure kinetics, stripped of dialogue, à la “Mad Max: Fury Road.” At the other is a far less obvious form of action, but one that can be just as gripping: conversation. James Ponsoldt’s magnificent “The End of the Tour” gives us two guys talking, and the effect is breathtaking.
The conversationalists happen to be hyper-articulate writers, screen versions of the real-life figures David Foster Wallace, the acclaimed novelist who committed suicide in 2008, and David Lipsky, who interviewed him for Rolling Stone. They’re played with a wrought and wary chemistry, synapses blazing, by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.
Based on Lipsky’s transcript-style chronicle of his five-day interview, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” the film is a road trip in which, on the surface at least, little happens. The two Davids drive to an airport, fly to Minneapolis, make the appointed rounds on a book tour. Mainly they talk. Over diner Muzak and vast quantities of junk food, in hotel rooms and the whacked-out consumer wonderland of the Mall of America, they embark on a guarded mutual seduction. Writerly ambition and self-doubt color every exchange.
At the time of their 1996 meeting, both men are in their early 30s and have each published two books of fiction. But Wallace’s rapturously reviewed maximalist novel “Infinite Jest” has put him on another plane. Lipsky has grudgingly become one of the countless Gen-Xers, his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) included, who can’t put it down. He secures a profile assignment from his editor (Ron Livingston) and heads to the wintry Midwest to join Wallace on his promotional tour.
He finds a man grappling with his newfound place in the literary limelight and sees something disingenuous in Wallace’s ambivalence. With their excruciating self-awareness and glaring blind spots, hunter and quarry believe they’re on to each other even as they sidle up and break out the Red Vines.
On their first night in Wallace’s suburban house, Lipsky loses track of time. So do we, drawn into the parries and banter. Donald Margulies’ screenplay distills Lipsky’s material in a way that’s both tender and incisive. It gets the quasi-friendship between journalist and subject in a way that few films do.
Many of the objections to the film have come from friends of Wallace, complaining that Segel’s portrayal and the film’s overall aesthetic don’t jibe with the man they knew. But even with dialogue that quotes Wallace directly, this is a fictionalized telling of events as Lipsky experienced them; it’s essentially his story. This is a subjective account of Wallace — the truth of the man remains a mystery.
Under Ponsoldt’s exquisitely unadorned direction, the actors bring two self-conscious souls to full-blooded life. Their words might be barbed, jokey, openhearted or a tangle of all of the above, but they’re always electric with emotional truth. That’s so whether the central duo are hanging with Wallace’s galumphing black Labs, humoring a generally upbeat driver/publicist who’s less than thrilled by Wallace’s outfits (Joan Cusack, perfect) or ratcheting up the one-upmanship in the company of two women, warmly played by Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner.
Eisenberg has portrayed nervous, bristly types before, but he taps into something sympathetic and indelible in Lipsky’s mix of aggressiveness, awed sincerity and professional jealousy. Whatever Wallace’s devoted fans might have feared, comic actor Segel’s first major plunge into drama is, like Eisenberg’s performance, one of the great screen portrayals of the year.
Holding forth on everything from Alanis Morissette to the existential abyss, Segel’s seemingly unprepossessing Wallace is in truth riveting. He embodies a piercing intellect chafing under an unwanted mantle — “voice of a generation” — but also a deep appreciation of joy.
Ponsoldt, whose showy grittiness in “Smashed” gave way to the more affecting understatement of “The Spectacular Now,” adopts a stripped-down approach that suits the twinned portrait of rivals and simpatico spirits. The film addresses Wallace’s struggles with depression and his ultimate fate, but this is no anatomy of a downfall. Nor is it a sugarcoated celebration. It’s a brief encounter, thorny and dazzling.
‘The End of the Tour’
MPAA rating: Rated R, for language, including some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles