There are few cinematic genres trickier to navigate than biopics. How can any film, no matter how artfully crafted, capture a person’s whole life in a couple of hours? Even more difficult are literary biopics. Apart from a few notable exceptions, the writing life is deeply unsexy and, in terms of all the qualities that make movies watchable, pretty boring. You sit at a desk by yourself and write. If you’re not doing that, you might be reading, or teaching a class, or, if you’re lucky, shuffling from city to city on a book tour. If none of that’s happening, you’re probably just taking care of the same mundane things everyone else is taking care of.
“The End of the Tour,” director James Ponsoldt’s new film about a five-day interview between writer David Lipsky (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) and novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) in 1996, embraces the mundane reality of literary life. The film is based on Lipsky’s 2010 memoir, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” published two years after Wallace committed suicide. Rather than try to sum up Wallace’s life and his approach to writing, or chart the course that led Wallace to suicide, the movie opts for a smaller, more precise take, a portrait of the artist as a lonely man, desperate to connect with others but unable to get out of his own head.
Ponsoldt, working with a script by playwright Donald Margulies, charts Wallace and Lipsky’s respective inner lives well. Early on, we see Lipsky at a bookstore, giving a reading from his first novel to a mostly empty audience. Later, at a literary party, a friend talks up Wallace, whose novel “Infinite Jest” was published to near instant acclaim. A new writer at Rolling Stone, Lipsky convinces his editor that Wallace is worth a lengthy profile, and soon sets out for rural Illinois, where Wallace is teaching creative writing at a nearby college.
Like any interview, Lipsky and Wallace’s relationship gets off to a rough start. At the tail-end of a lengthy book tour and burned out from interviews and invasive reporters, Wallace is flinty and suspicious, less willing than usual to play along. Lipsky is ingratiating and overly friendly, trying to pry without prying, hoping Wallace will let slip some profound truth. The two men play with Wallace’s dogs, smoke cigarettes, and gorge themselves on junk food. An uneasy relationship forms, as Wallace tries to dance around the artificial constraints of an interview, and Lipsky attempts, all at once, to remain objective, become Wallace’s friend, and somehow claim some echo of Wallace’s innate talent for himself.
“The End of the Tour” is about conversations — late-night gab sessions, stilted talks on long car rides, the halting exchanges that come when friendships are new and so much is uncertain. By turns, Lipsky and Wallace reveal parts of themselves, though neither can let his guard down completely. Eisenberg and Segel are fascinating to watch — both are fine actors, but in past films, they’ve been able to lean on plot and narrative propulsion to help carry performances. Here, it’s just them, on screen, trying to out-think each other and reach some measure of comfort.
As Lipsky, Eisenberg doesn’t have to stretch himself too far; by now, he’s well-versed in playing characters whose nerdy, insecure exterior barely hides a sense of smug confidence. But Segel gives what might be his best performance ever. It’s not just his imitation of Wallace’s physicality (which is impressive), and it’s not even that he channels Wallace’s mannerisms and way of speaking. Segel is great in “The End of the Tour” because he seems to truly understand the bone-deep loneliness that was at Wallace’s core, a solitude that was, in part, unintentionally self-inflicted through his struggles with depression and addiction. We see flashes here and there — a slight facial expression, a line delivered haltingly — of that loneliness. Segel plays Wallace with subtlety and sensitivity, deftly avoiding the sort of romantic writerly artifice Wallace himself would have hated. This is one of Segel’s first major dramatic roles and it’s likely to change the course of his career — why keep sticking him in goofy comedies when he’s got potential like this?
In “The End of the Tour,” Lipsky and Wallace talk a lot about artifice, the public personas we build for ourselves, the private sides we share only with our most intimate friends, and the true selves that exist only when we are alone and unguarded. Ponsoldt stages the film as a conflict between these three competing aspects, and between Lipsky and Wallace’s competing approaches to life and writing. It’s heady stuff, and, like Wallace’s prose, the film is nerdy but approachable, with a kind of self-deprecating humor about it.
Though we see Wallace sign books and give an interview on a Midwest NPR station, we never see him writing. In fact, it’s not until the last few moments of “The End of the Tour” that we see Wallace’s desk, stationed in a dark room and piled high with papers and notebooks and a massive desktop PC. Wallace is outside, scraping ice off his car, and Lipsky is inside Wallace’s house, scouting for a few last-minute details to add to his notes. It’s a telling moment, a tip of the hat from Ponsoldt. The great secret to writing is that there is no secret, just a lot of work that’s often lonely. Wallace knew that and, by the end of “The End of the Tour,” Lipsky seems to figure it out, too. It’s not the stirring revelation that biopics are usually made of, but it’s true, and that’s even better.
“The End of the Tour” screens Sept. 12-13 and 15-16 at 7 p.m. at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $11, available at themusichall.org or by calling 603-436-2400.