Jason Segel made his Hollywood fortune portraying lanky dude-bros in the Judd Apatow universe. There was Freaks and Geeks and Knocked Up, where the actor played second fiddle to the likes of smart aleck hucksters Seth Rogen and James Franco. He finally landed a starring turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall as a loveably lovesick sap, receiving relatively positive praise. He found further mainstream success on the small screen with How I Met Your Mother.
Now, Segel seems ready for something substantial, transitioning into the realm of drama (well, kind of) with James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour. It's a talky exploration of flawed genius, jealousy and a distinctly American loneliness, one that depends heavily on the nuances of performance.
As the author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, Segel gives a measured and melancholy turn, encapsulating a certain conflict of ideology in a writer deftly aware of his own insecurities. He disappears into the role, wearing spectacles, grungy clothes and a bandana that covers his straggly hair.
The film takes place mostly in 1996, when Wallace and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by the always squirrely Jesse Eisenberg) spent five days together at the end of the Infinite Jest publicity tour conducting what would become an intimate extended interview. Their dense conversations cover a range of topics, including addiction, depression and the looming omniscience of technology. Undercutting each is a sense of anxiety about humanity and connection on the eve of the Internet age.
While on a recent San Diego publicity tour of his own (an irony not lost on the actor), Segel looked spry, ready to wax verbosely about a subject of which he cares deeply. "There's a reason David Foster Wallace speaks to people in such a personal way, and it's the same thing that draws you to Catcher in the Rye. For a certain amount of pages while you're on this journey, he's saying 'I am you.'"
Asked how he prepared for the role, Segel name checks scholarly essays and open sources (including Wallace's appearance on Charlie Rose). But the character ultimately took shape during pre-production. "A lot of what I had to do was make choices, and guesses as to what somebody might be feeling."
For much of The End of the Tour, Lipsky and Wallace attempt to do just that; many of their awkward interactions are clumsy stabs at forming a bond. Eisenberg and Segel navigate this tricky dynamic with ease. "We had the emotional freedom to explore what we thought was actually going on between these two guys at any given moment."
Due credit must also be given to Ponsoldt, an actor's director who has procured similarly weighty turns from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul (Smashed). Segel praises his director's patience and preparation: "He and I went through every scene talking about what was underneath, what are they really talking about during these conversations."
Subtext ends up defining The End of the Tour, which opens Friday, August 7, most notably how the American dream has devolved. "The whole movie is dancing around a single question: When things go as well as you ever dreamed they would, why is it that you still feel the same?" Wallace twinges at this realization throughout the film, an uncertainty Segel balances with the author's obvious superior wit and intelligence.
"There's something all-consuming about the message we are given here," Segel says. "We're told you should work hard all day, come home, put your feet up, crack open a beer, watch reality television and do that again. You'll be just fine. It's no surprise people don't feel just fine."
For an actor whose characters are usually clouded by bong smoke and booze, Segel's Wallace sees the contradictions of our society rather clearly. But seeing and being at peace with this reality are two very different things.
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