“Do what you gotta do,” says David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, “Sex Tape”) when confronted with the tape recorder of his interviewer. The recorder is a physical representation of the emotional divide between the two men, as one tries to present a respectable version of himself and the other has an obligation to tear him down. The other man is Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, “American Ultra”), who chose the assignment of travelling with Wallace for the last five days of his 1997 book tour for Infinite Jest.
Based on Lipsky’s memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, this tale of two Davids, like both men, is full of beautiful contradictions. Wallace has finally obtained recognition for his work, but with it comes fear and self-doubt. Lipsky, however, has also just published a novel, but the indifferent attention it received does not compare to the love given to Wallace’s masterpiece. Lipsky’s desire to interview Wallace stems from this jealous admiration, presenting Wallace with a challenge – to prove himself to the world, but especially to his fellow writers.
Unsurprisingly, this roadtrip film is mostly dialogue. But with James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) as director, the aimless conversation meanders into the most compelling of areas. When Lipsky arrives at Wallace’s snowed-in house in Illinois, they quickly go deep into his fears, loneliness and failure to recognize the greatness he has achieved. In his cluttered house with two big affectionate black dogs, Wallace has built a hiding place from a world that loves him so much that he even unlisted his phone number.
When they go out on the road, Lipsky has a chance to immerse himself in his jealousy. He watches as Wallace reads to a packed crowd, appears on public radio and speaks to Lipsky’s girlfriend on the phone for almost half an hour. Instead of basking in this glory, Wallace is haunted by the same sadness and loneliness that would provoke his suicide 11 years later. Segel plays this side of Wallace with contained ease. His elusive mannerisms and subtlety conveys the power of the man and the tempestuous side that he tries so hard to hide. Playing well off Segel, Eisenberg uses his trademark acrimony to highlight the false friendship of this interviewer-interviewee relationship. But the depth of the relationship goes beyond friendship to admiration, disgust and even close to hatred. Considering the goof-off parts that these actors have chosen in the past, it was a pleasant shock to see them handle these roles so thoughtfully.
One of the most interesting parts of this film is how much its subject would have hated it. Wallace’s family has objected to the movie’s creation, stating that “David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.” To be diminished into a cinematic parody of himself would be embarrassing to anyone, but for Wallace, whose self-consciousness knew no bounds, it would have been crushing.
So out of respect for Wallace and his brilliance complemented best by his “regular guy-ness,” we must take this film as a vague adaptation of what he was like. But it’s a fantastic vague adaptation, and it is lucky to have such a great man at its roots.