Road trips are a fairly routine framework for movies, often with a focus on two traveling companions. Never have I seen one that moved me so close to tears as “The End of the Tour,” which transforms that common clay into a work of beauty.
It is an inspired look into the effects of artistry and success and fame. It is a showcase for two young stars moving beyond their boyish charms. It is a story based on real events that lifts five days of talk between two writers into a touching examination of troubled humanity.
Simply put, it is a masterwork.
The story begins with a 2008 news report that legendary author David Foster Wallace committed suicide. He was 46 and left a wife, a vast literary legacy and a reputation as one of the most innovative writers of the past quarter-century. The death notice has a painful impact on David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter who interviewed Wallace for those five days in 1996 as the writer’s writer rock star promoted his breakthrough bestseller “Infinite Jest.”
Revisiting the trove of cassette-recorded conversations from that assignment, Lipsky recalls their long, deep discussions of depression, women and fame. The film is a dramatization of his memoir, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.” What begins as a celebrity interview between a newly famous author and a somewhat younger, somewhat jealous reporter deepens. Wallace (in an extraordinary performance by Jason Segel) is wary about the attention, cautious about what he reveals, friendly but reserved. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, who winningly curls his brow into a question mark) sees him as a scoop.
There are delicious moments between Segel and Eisenberg, each in a terrific characterization. Wallace, teaching a semester in Indiana, welcomes Lipsky to his reclusive snowbound rental home, and it’s clear early on that both are on thin ice. Too tall for his own comfort, Wallace slumps his posture to pass for an average guy. He folds his sometimes tense hands inside crossed arms. He wears his signature Southern bandanna in midwinter because removing it might look like an affectation. Vulnerably admitting to his loneliness, Wallace still keeps his visitor at a protective arm’s length.
And yet there is a warm connection between the pair. Lipsky has romanticized the depressed genius. Wallace enjoys coming in from the cold. They make good company, though neither is ever quite off duty, and both know that journalism involves a betrayal of trust. Wallace withholds sensitive personal information while answering Lipsky’s probing questions about his alcohol abuse, suicidal tendencies and rumored heroin use. His childlike cravings for junk food and late-night TV are the only addictions we see, but we always sense a hint of more.
Still, they bond a bit as they travel to the Twin Cities for the end of Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” book tour. It’s there that the film introduces several female characters that expand the story beyond a two-man buddy movie. We get nice passages with Joan Cusack stealing her scenes as a hospitable Minnesota chauffeur for visiting bigwigs, and Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner as college friends of Wallace. Wallace accuses the flirtatious Lipsky of trying to rob him of a warm old relationship, bringing their own connection to a painful, soul-baring turn.
There is a breathtaking roster of talent assembled here. This is director James Ponsoldt’s fourth feature film, following his fine, little viewed “Off the Black,” “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now.” He avoids any trace of showiness, letting the narrative tell itself. The sweetly touching score by Danny Elfman is ideal for this low-key tale. The screenplay, by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies, is a superb balance of fact and drama, a journey that never depends too much on plot.
At one point, when Lipsky and Wallace’s superficial chat implies that they are approaching friendship, Wallace says “This is nice. This is not real.” The film, showing us two men encountering each other in a cold and lonely world, feels real, and far deeper than merely nice. The cast never reaches for effects. Neither does the film. It’s all right there.