In the current moment of “Is This Biopic Accurate?” dustups, the controversy over Straight Outta Compton’s treatment of NWA’s misogyny is undoubtedly the more important one. Go read our coverage if you haven’t!
However, in the words of Yoda, “there is another.” More a light simmer than a raging boil, it concerns whether the recent film The End Of The Tour does justice to David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel), the post-postmodern literary guru who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace was a lot of things to a lot of people, and the mystique surrounding his complex life often threatens to overshadow his work. Can this movie really add anything meaningful to the public’s understanding of him? No matter how well made it is, does it necessarily beg the question of its own existence a mere seven years after Wallace’s death?
I don’t think The End Of The Tour has much to offer to people who aren’t already moderately into DFW. It has some Sparknotes nuggets and “look at this doofy writer guy and his silly habits” moments for the uninitiated, but structurally it’s basically My Dinner With Andre with more scene changes. Instead of telling Wallace’s life story, the movie (adapted from David Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself) covers the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour when he was attached via the hip to Lipsky, a Rolling Stone journalist played here by Jesse Eisenberg. They talk, drive around, smoke cigarettes, eat, and talk some more. If watching ~100 minutes of two white beta males pondering what it means to be an American in the mid-90’s doesn’t sound like your thing, this is probably not your movie.
The End Of The Tour doesn’t try to convert Wallace’s genius into cinema, and that’s a good thing—a lesser movie might have gone the Theory Of Everything route and shown us montages of words shooting out of Jason Segel’s eyeballs or something. The movie’s not trying to make a case for Wallace’s prescience or contemporary relevance, and it’s not trying to drag skeletons out of his closet and give us “the untold story.” What it does give us is an amazing performance by Jason Segel that doesn’t tell us anything about Wallace the man, but that has a lot to say about our (read: fans’) relationship to Wallace the media figure.
Back when this picture of Jason Segel as Wallace surfaced, I thought, “Oh, that might be kind of cool.” For some reason, though, many folks (including Wallace’s family and friends) thought the guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall wouldn’t be convincing as someone who’s really smart. If there’s one thing this movie has to say to everyone, not just Wallace fans, it’s that those people were wrong. Jason Segel will probably win an Oscar—if not for this movie, then for one of the other serious roles it’ll open up for him. Not saying it’s a competition, but if it was, Segel just took Vince Vaughn’s bid to be a serious actor in True Detective and did something disgusting with it. Something more in Chuck Palahniuk’s territory.
Segel has “DFW on Charlie Rose” down to a T. There’s the same awkward hesitation in the delivery, the same regular-guy humility at odds with the freak-of-nature intellect. Most importantly, you see Segel hiding the parts of Wallace that became more central to the public’s understanding of him after his suicide: depression, anxiety, and fear of these aspects’ misinterpretation. It’s not an impersonation, but a full, layered performance of Wallace’s media persona.
Those are weird words to write, since Wallace famously hated the idea of developing a public identity as a “famous person,” but the point of The End Of The Tour is that Wallace the personality (not necessarily Wallace the man) was in self-negating denial about what happens when you go on TV. It’s impossible to highly publicize yourself and not be reduced, distorted, and abused by those on the other end, so Segel’s character in this movie is necessarily an invalid portrait of Wallace, no matter how spot on an embodiment it is of the persona he left us with.
It would be ridiculous to think that Segel (or Lipsky, director James Ponsoldt, or writer Donald Marguiles) has some insight into what made Wallace the man or the writer tick. Wallace devotees will hopefully remain certain of that fact even as they leave the theater creeped out by Segel’s uncanny resemblance to their icon. To watch Segel as Wallace is to realize that watching Wallace as Wallace doesn’t bring you much closer to a meaningful relationship with the man or his work. If you (like me) have bought into Wallace’s unintentional cult of personality in the past, witnessing the exorcism of that personality into the Jason Segel vessel can be a valuable experience.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself.@awkeller510