The new David Foster Wallace movie is much more than a biopic

End of the Tour,” aka “that Jason Segel David Foster Wallace movie,” is a not a traditional, life-spanning biopic, and thank heavens for that. The film is a more personal, meditative examination of the tortured artist that has enough wisdom and profundity to appeal to fans and novices alike.

“End of the Tour” is based on Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) memoir, which itself was based on a Rolling Stone long-form interview that was never published. In 1996, Lipsky travelled to Bloomington, IL to spend five days with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and accompany him on the final stretch of his publicity book tour for his most famous novel “Infinite Jest.”

Over the course of these five days, Lipsky keeps his tape recorder on as he and Wallace pontificate on anything and everything, from the big questions about life and loneliness to more petty things like how “Die Hard” is awesome and what Alanis Morissette would look like eating a bologna sandwich. It’s a very intimate experience, and the camera often feels like a fly on the wall.

Segel is sublime in what is easily his best and most “serious” performance. Segel still gets big laughs, but they come from the undeniable chemistry (and later, the tension) between he and Eisenberg, who also puts in stellar work here. Segel perfectly conveys Wallace’s disinterest in his own fame while also highlighting his worrying obsession with the public’s perception of him, which is no easy task.

It’s a complicated role and Segel truly owns it. The scene in which Lipsky asks Wallace why he wears the bandana is particularly moving — it’s here that Wallace comes face-to-face with the idea of his own mythos, and the true weight of his dilemma is felt.

There are so many subtle, touching moments that display Wallace’s genius as well as those that hint at the inner turmoil that ultimately led to his suicide. Segel’s portrayal of Wallace is equal parts aloof and disturbed, but director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now,” “Smashed“) never exploits his alleged “dark side” for a cheap sentimental moment. All the humanising moments connect on a real emotional level without pandering to the audience, and Ponsoldt brilliantly turns biopic conventions on their heads by refusing to peg Wallace down to any one interpretation.

The film is essentially one long, occasionally philosophical and always amusing, ongoing conversation. It’s surprisingly moving, wise and full of profound and well-articulated ideas, so much so that I had to stop taking notes as I was basically writing down every other line. Fans of Wallace’s writing will find plenty to love here, but even the unfamiliar will walk away inspired and affected.

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