What’s particularly disappointing about some of the latter-day Woody Allen comedies is the filmmaker’s recent inability to capture effectively how smart people talk to each other. In his earlier classics, Allen had a gift for human-sounding dialogue even between the most pompous and pretentious of academics, but in movies like “Irrational Man,” his characters sound like they’re spewing computer-generated sentences that happen to include occasional references to Schopenhauer.
Listening to two smart guys talk to each other is among the principal pleasures of “The End of the Tour,” based on writer and journalist David Lipsky’s multiple-day interview with author David Foster Wallace, as the latter was finishing up the promotion for his novel “Infinite Jest.” That book was an unlikely best-seller, weighing in at over three pounds and containing a vast array of footnotes and minutiae regarding the rules of tennis.
(Confession: I purchased and started, but never finished, “Infinite Jest.” I feel confident saying that others probably did the same.)
The film opens in 2008 with Lipsky (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) getting a phone call informing him that Wallace (Jason Segel) has committed suicide. Lipsky is prompted to dig out a shoebox containing tapes of the interview the two had conducted a dozen years before. We then leap back to 1996, where novelist Lipsky has just published his autobiographical novel “The Art Fair.” (In real life, that book made Time magazine’s list of the best books of the year, but the movie — adapted from Lipsky’s memoir by playwright Donald Margulies — presents it as landing without a ripple, with only a handful of semi-interested fans showing up for a reading.)
Hired as a journalist by Rolling Stone, Lipsky pitches his editor (Ron Livingston) the idea of interviewing Wallace, whose new novel is getting rapturous reviews and equally impressive sales numbers. Tape recorder in hand, Lipsky sets off for snowy Bloomington to meet Wallace and join him on a trip to Minneapolis to promote “Infinite Jest.”
That’s pretty much the meat of the story, but within this basic framework, Margulies and director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) delve into many fascinating areas: Can interviewer and subject ever really have a genuine conversation when both people have an agenda that transcends the discussion itself? What compels writers to write, and how does that color their own viewpoint of the world? Can a struggling writer profile a successful author without allowing jealousy to creep in?
These concerns might seem merely intellectual, but Segel and Eisenberg make them palpably human and moving. Yes, they discuss the life of the mind, but they also talk about “Die Hard” and Alanis Morissette. (Heck, they even go see “Broken Arrow” together, at the Mall of America, no less.) In a massive departure from his previous work, Segel embodies Wallace’s intellectual curiosity and dismay over his sudden fame without overplaying the author’s vulnerability. (This performance never stamps “Future Suicide” on itself.) Eisenberg, meanwhile, captures the awkward, anxious intimacy that can bloom between two people who might have become friends under other circumstances but have instead been placed in a position to be, at the very least, cordially adversarial.
Of all the various art forms, writing may be the most challenging to present on the screen; Roger Ebert used to talk about how biopics of authors were often reduced to a scene of clacking away frantically on a typewriter, followed by the moment where he enters a neighborhood bar and slams his manuscript down on a table. “End of the Tour” refrains from depicting the process of writing, but what it has to say about the act of creation, not to mention the act of talking about it to an interviewer, is rich and fascinating.
The movie also does a great job at being a period piece for a relatively recent period — apart from a few references to e-mail, this is still a pre-screen society, when computers and cell phones hadn’t yet consumed our lives. That analog sensibility is felt throughout, from Lipsky’s cassette tapes to the physical, tangible books that people are still carrying (or, in the case of “Infinite Jest,” lugging) in this era. Even the idea of a magazine journalist talking to a household-name author of literature feels like a throwback to a whole other world.
Like “My Dinner with Andre” or “Mindwalk,” “The End of the Tour” turns dialogue into riveting cinema. It’s captivating enough to make me want to try tackling “Infinite Jest” again, and that’s no small feat.