James Ponsoldt's "The End of the Tour" is based on a real encounter between two successful authors. For a certain kind of young, creative intellectual, however, the movie will have the powerful pull of fantasy.
"The End of the Tour" is the story of David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone whose 1996 debut novel, "The Art Fair," was shaping up as a critical hit -- until David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" became the literary sensation of the year. Wallace's 1,079-page novel was a prodigious work that encompassed so much it even encompassed itself (96 of the pages were endnotes). Seemingly overnight, Wallace became that grandest of figures, The Voice of a Generation. Twelve years later, at the age of 46, he killed himself.
The movie begins with that news, which leads Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) to dig up his audio interviews with Wallace (Jason Segel) during the final days of the "Infinite Jest" book tour. (The material was to be a Rolling Stone feature, but it never ran.) What unfolds, in flashback, is a modern fable: the struggling artist who discovers that life at the top doesn't look much different.
"The End of the Tour" sometimes feels like a new generation's version of "My Dinner With Andre," though not quite as wide-ranging or deep-delving. Smoking profusely, Lipsky and Wallace mostly discuss meta-topics: authenticity, the meaning of images, the sad irony of being well-educated and unhappy. Odd personal details emerge: Who would have guessed that Wallace loved Alanis Morissette?
Segel is thoroughly compelling as Wallace, a shambling, slovenly, depressive dude whose towering talent sometimes put a wedge between him and the world. In a way, Wallace shared some similarities with another suicidal artist, Kurt Cobain. The author and the musician both were suspicious of culture and obsessed with authenticity; fame made them part of the former and seemed to rob them of the latter.
"The End of the Tour" strikes the occasional false note by trying to stir up drama, as when two women (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner) create some semi-romantic friction. The movie works best when it lets the two authors -- both earnest, insecure and trapped in their own heads -- speak for themselves.