Some movies speak to you, others about you, and a few for you. James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour accomplishes all three, focused on that elusive cinematic property, the beauty of language and philosophical conversation. Something like My Dinner with Andre, featuring much hipper people.
On one side of the figurative table in 1996 is David Foster Wallace, a professor, essayist and author of the then-recent novel Infinite Jest, being praised and parried for its neo-counterculture satire and style, likened by one reviewer to "having your eyelids pried open."
On the other side is Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky. Not much of a reader yet intrigued by Wallace's growing reputation, he picks up a copy of Infinite Jest. Reading only a fraction of the 1,000-page epic is all Lipsky needs to recognize a generation's voice. But that voice doesn't particularly like speaking publicly, joining the image forgers and attention whores Wallace found particularly distasteful.
That's "found," as in past tense. Wallace committed suicide in 2008. The seeds of disenchantment and the genius kept alive after his death are evident in those five days spent road tripping with Lipsky, to a Minneapolis book store where Wallace will wrap up a tour he didn't want to do.
Nothing really happens except two strangers' discovery, of shared interests and mutual dislikes, of personal boundaries and professional duty, through Donald Margulies' remarkably literate adaptation of Lipsky's chronicle of events. Wallace's obsessions with privacy, junk food, late night movies and Alanis Morissette keeps Lipsky on his toes, tape recorder always on.
Jason Segel sheds most of his comical lunk appeal to portray Wallace, a guarded bear who could pass as a mallrat with his perpetual bandana, gently and firmly choosing his words and for whom they're intended. It is the sort of performance that changes careers, coming out of left field and into awards discussions.
The role of Lipsky gets appropriately cast with Jesse Eisenberg, who in anything from The Social Network to Zombieland has the market cornered on jittery inquirers who bristle and defer.
Their dialogues are by turns intimate, amusing, insightful, agitated, rueful, virtually the breadth of a friendship in five days. Ponsoldt imbues this fact-based story with the character depth of his earlier fiction, The Spectacular Now and Smashed, working with the continual riches of Margulies' screenplay.
The End of the Tour asks viewers to lean in, listen well and be rewarded with an uncommonly intelligent and relatable movie experience. Nearly two-thirds of the way through 2015, Ponsoldt's film and Segel's performance are so far my favorites of the year.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.