For a while there it seemed that the coming David Foster Wallace movie was truly ill starred. Not only had it drawn the wrath of Wallace’s estate and his widow, but the casting of Jason Segel in the lead role — surely a stunt, Wallace’s fans said — had also unleashed howl after incredulous howl.
Wallace, who shot to literary fame for the voluminous 1996 novel Infinite Jest and hanged himself in 2008, was known for writing hyperintricate fiction and nonfiction once described in The Times as “prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging.”
Segel, a Judd Apatow protégé, built a career out of deploying his hangdog countenance and aw-shucks manner to maximum comic effect — in the television series Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother, and films like Sex Tape and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he wrote, starred in and graced with multiple shots of his family jewels.
But late in 2013, Segel was sent the script for The End of the Tour, an adaptation of journalist David Lipsky’s book recounting five days spent with Wallace during the promotion of Infinite Jest. Paging through the screenplay, Segel felt a rush of recognition. He was about to turn 34, the age Wallace had been at the time, and had also achieved success but was struggling with the question of what exactly to do next. That it was such a U-turn from Segel’s regular fare made the part only more tantalising.
“I knew I was going to try it, immediately,” Segel said. “When you start repeating yourself, it gets boring for everybody.”
Segel is as affable and endearing a presence as his on-screen characters suggest. He is also 6-foot-4 and, not wanting to seem intimidating, adopted the softhearted goofball act years ago, shrinking down, he said, “both metaphorically and physically.” Wallace was also a big guy, but playing him would be, for Segel, at long last a stretch. “I was terrified, of course,” Segel said.
After learning that Segel landed the part, many fans of Wallace were terrified themselves. “Jason Segel as DFW ... a young Monty Hall to play Kerouac?” asked one of the many hand-wringers online. The reaction was swift, merciless and riven with schadenfreude. One dissenter tweeted that Segel was clearly playing Wallace “as some sort of stoned idiot savant.”
Then, late in January, the film had its premiere at Sundance. Segel’s performance — empathetic, nuanced, whip smart — left the packed theatre breathless. And Twitter ended up eating crow.
“Yes, Jason Segel is great as David Foster Wallace,” announced Vanity Fair. “All concerns were for naught,” said IndieWire. “It’s early, but let’s prep Jason Segel’s Oscar campaign just to be safe,” said The Huffington Post, echoing what Vulture posited the day before. It was the reaction James Ponsoldt, who directed the film, said he had anticipated ever since production began. “We all felt we had this secret treasure,” he said.
One faction that Segel and the filmmakers are unlikely to ever win over, though, is the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, and his closest editors. In April 2014, the trust issued a withering objection to the film, saying Wallace would never, if alive, have agreed to it. That the trust could not stop the film — certain privacy rights do not extend to the dead or to their estates — only heightened their ire.
“We are proud of the film, and as deep admirers of his work, were always committed to honouring the memory of David Foster Wallace,” three of the five producers, David Kanter, James Dahl and Matt DeRoss, said in a statement.
To play Wallace, Segel said he worked to strip away any vanity or hint of pretence or self-satisfaction, and strived, moment by moment, to be as honest and empathetic as he could be. Infinite Jest, he said, ended up being the biggest influence on how he played the role.
“It felt like an SOS, saying, ‘Does anyone else feel this way?’” Segel said, “That there’s something about the American promise that X, Y and Z are going to satisfy this itch that you’re not enough, that a whole generation found to be a false promise. No achievement or pleasure or entertainment or consuming is going to be the thing that makes you feel like everything’s OK. And it really hit home with me. Because you really are still you when you go back home at night. No matter what award you’ve gotten or how much money is in your bank account, you feel the same going to sleep.”
That said, Segel admitted to feeling pretty good that his performance and the film have drawn such praise: He was able to show himself and most everyone that his departure from comedy has real legs. He also said he was still exploring what do next, though early reports have him in a drama with Rooney Mara. While playing the role helped scratch his own itch for deeper, darker roles, it still left him hungering, he said, for infinitely more.