Lawrence Toppman

There’s heavy drama at ‘The End of the Tour’

A24 Films

Reporters hear the question after any celebrity interview: “What’s Oprah Winfrey/Tom Cruise/Meryl Streep really like?”

I have spent 30 to 45 minutes in private conversation with each of these people, and I have no idea. They were like whatever they chose to be like on that day – funny, cranky, verbose, thoughtful – because they were talking to a reporter, and they were on guard.

That kind of relationship lies at the heart of the complex, exceptional “The End of the Tour,” in which Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) travels with writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) on a 1996 book tour to promote “Infinite Jest.”

Lipsky tries to “know” the newly acclaimed author. But however much he explores Wallace’s medicine cabinet and chats up his ex-girlfriend, Wallace remains elusive. Donald Margulies adapted Lipsky’s book-length account of the trip, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” and the screenplay reveals reporters’ tricks: The appearance of frankness (which sometimes is frankness and sometimes isn’t), the assumption of friendship where it doesn’t exist, the springing of tough questions after soft ones.

Wallace, meanwhile, wants to be known on his own terms: He tries to choose topics and asks Lipsky to avoid certain people, yet he longs to communicate feelings without sounding egotistical or desperately lonely. (Wallace hanged himself in 2008, believing antidepressant drugs could never help; the film opens with his death, then goes back 12 years.)

The movie has no key supporting characters. Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack and Mickey Sumner play women who interact briefly with the pair, but most of the story consists of the two Davids conversing in cars and hotel rooms. Three things keep it from lagging: James Ponsoldt’s unobtrusive and well-paced direction, Margulies’ keen insights and the leads.

These characters have a George-and Lenny chemistry a la “Of Mice and Men,” with the smaller Lipsky wary, verbal and agitated and the larger Wallace shambling, slow-spoken and anxious. Lipsky, himself a published minor novelist, envies Wallace’s acclaim and brilliance; Wallace envies Lipsky’s way with women and ease in his own skin.

Eisenberg is a natural for his role, which suggests others he has done. Segel, maligned for taking the part after many superficial comedies, gives a superb performance that suggests nobody else he has played. Even when Wallace rouses himself to a state of uneasy cheerfulness, his eyes reveal the anxiety that others will call him a fraud.

Jacob Ihre’s cinematography, much of it intentionally bleached of color, reflects Wallace’s internal state. So does Danny Elfman’s gentle, melancholy music. (That’s unlike anything he has done.) And Margulies’ screenplay reveals as thoroughly as any movie I recall what life is like in a permanent state of depression.

For Wallace, the affection of the students he teaches matters no more than acclaim from critics or large hardcover sales for his 1,000-page novel. Lipsky can’t understand how that sort of attention could leave any writer unhappy and unfilled, but we know. Watching the whole story in flashback, anticipating Wallace’s distant but inevitable death, becomes a shatteringly sad experience.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The End of the Tour

1/2

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel.

Writer: Donald Margulies.

Director: James Ponsoldt.

Length: 106 minutes

Rating: R (language, including sexual references).

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