A tete-a-tete between two writers that was acclaimed in book form fails to translate effectively to the screen in “The End of the Tour.” Despite high-powered talent — playwright Donald Margulies making his screenplay debut, helmer James Ponsoldt fresh off the excellent “Spectacular Now,” an attention-getting cast — there’s too little drama and insight to this adaptation of David Lipsky’s account of his lengthy interview/encounter with novelist David Foster Wallace. Fans of the late Wallace will be curious, but A24 (which bought U.S. rights just before the film’s Sundance premiere) will need stronger notices than they’ll likely get to pull anyone else toward a plotless two-hander whose central dynamic isn’t as compelling as intended.
A slightly younger novelist who’d returned to journalism after winning good reviews but low sales with two early books, Lipsky was — like many — awed by the sheer ambition and frequent brilliance of Wallace’s second novel, “Infinite Jest.” At 1,079 extremely dense pages, its phantasmagorical sprawl invited a degree of media attention rare for a modern literary novel; that it was as frequently exasperating and impenetrable as it was enthralling only heightened the fascination. Already fairly well known for his first novel, “The Broom of the System,” and some remarkable essays, Wallace had very mixed feelings about his newfound celebrity.
Thus he was wary about being interviewed in general, and by Lipsky for Rolling Stone in particular. Flying from New York to meet his subject in the Midwest (he was then teaching at Illinois State U.), Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) finds the perpetually bandana-domed Wallace (Jason Segel) living alone with his dogs in a nondescript ranch-style home. He’s both friendly and skittish, worried about being misrepresented or represented at all in popular media.
The few days they spend together constitute the end of Wallace’s promotional “Jest” tour. They travel to a bookstore reading and some additional publicity chores in the Minneapolis area, where Joan Cusack plays their publisher-assigned driver. The two Davids also spend some time hanging out with locals Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner), respectively a fan-turned-friend and former college girlfriend of Wallace’s. When Wallace perceives Lipsky as flirting with Betsy, he takes surprising offense.
The two men also clash somewhat whenever Lipsky brings up the more discomfiting rumors about his subject (who admits to being placed on suicide watch during a depressed period some years earlier, but denies ever having been a heroin addict). Saying he “treasure(s) my regular-guyness,” Wallace bridles at the suggestion that his protestations of inarticulacy and shyness are just a packaged authorial persona. Indeed, those accusations seem to reflect his interrogator’s own insecurities and envy more than anything else.
Nonetheless, as awkward as their mutually probing forced friendship often is, we’re meant to understand that they do bond on some significant level. Later, when his book transcribing their five-day talks is published after Wallace’s suicide in 2008 at age 46 (the original Rolling Stone article never ran), Lipsky recalls the whole experience as the greatest conversation he ever had.
Trouble is, what we see and hear onscreen here isn’t all that great — not especially revealing, poignant, funny or engaging. The dialogue Margulies has presumably culled primarily from the highly praised book isn’t particularly clever or insightful, and despite several quoted review blurbs, any viewer unfamiliar with Wallace’s work would get no real idea what it was like — let alone where it came from. Segel’s shambling impersonation captures the man’s unease in his own skin, but the brilliance of his mind and talent are things we must take entirely on faith.
After Eisenberg’s more adventuresome performances in “Night Moves” and “The Double” last year, his neurotic tics feel on autopilot here; he doesn’t create a character distinct from their over-familiar rhythms. The two leads’ clashing styles might work if the film were entirely about two superficially similar people’s inability to truly find common ground. But as we’re finally intended to judge their meeting a profound connective one on at least some levels, the chemistry simply feels off.
After the lives-in-crisis fictions of Ponsoldt’s “Smashed” and “Spectacular Now,” which were told in a similar low-key naturalistic tone but built toward much greater impact, “The End of the Tour” feels like a well-crafted miss. Though he provides a 12-years-later framing device, Margulies can’t find much narrative structure (let alone momentum) in the protagonists’ mildly interesting interactions over these few days’ course. Given helmer and scenarist’s best efforts, maybe Lipsky’s account just wasn’t meant to be dramatized.
Design and tech contributions are pro, though the general faceless, wintry Midwestern ambiance feels like one more element that neither reflects anything much about the characters nor makes a strong impression in and of itself.