Sundance: (Very) Early Oscar Buzz for Jason Segel’s Portrayal of David Foster Wallace

By

Sundance is always good for some infuriatingly early — as in 12 months early — awards predictions (though the hive mind wasn’t wrong about Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons or Damien Chazelle last year). But no one was expecting Jason Segel to be the first actor at this year’s Sundance to be Twitter-nominated as a 2016 Oscar contender before we even know who the 2015 Oscar winners are.

Yes, Jason Segel. The guy who awkwardly wooed us all and Lindsay Weir by reciting Styx’s “Lady” as Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks. The guy who did slap bets as Marshall Eriksen on How I Met Your Mother. The guy we saw full-frontal in the opening scene of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That guy. He plays David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, which debuted last night here in Park City. And he was great.

The announcement of Segel’s casting, a gifted slapstick comedian and populist, as one of our most cerebral authors was greeted with the same cynicism as was Ashton Kutcher’s casting last year as Steve Jobs. (Founded in the latter, but thankfully not founded here.) Wallace’s estate tried to stop the film, which is based on a book about a five-day road trip Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) took with the author in 1996 right after the publication of Infinite Jest. That Rolling Stone profile never ran, but Lipsky revisited their time together for his book after Wallace's suicide in 2008. The script from playwright Donald Margulies, based on the raw transcripts of their conversation, depicts Wallace as a semi-hermit living in snowy Illinois and uncomfortable with his fame, but also warm and endearingly open for a companion to join him in eating junk food and smoking cigarettes and talking about loneliness and not getting laid as he finished out his Infinite Jest book tour.

The two fast friends tour the Mall of America with a book-publicist-assigned escort (Joan Cusack), and go for a wild ride with a fan turned friend (Mamie Gumer) and one of Wallace's college exes (Mickey Sumner) that turns dark on a dime when Wallace thinks Lipsky is hitting on her. It’s no surprise that an audience full of journalists has gone nuts for a movie that puts two extremely intelligent writers, with all the neurosis and self-loathing and competition that entails, in a car and watches them build a friendship over compact and artificially instigated circumstances.

A24 picked up the distribution rights to the film (directed by James Ponsoldt of Smashed and The Spectacular Now) just before the premiere started, and as soon as it ended, Variety’s Anne Thompson was the first to tweet that Segel “gives a brilliant awards worthy performance.” Others called it “career-changing” or “transformative.” (Segel has Wallace's stringy long hair, facial scruff, and signature white bandana, but he doesn't look like the guy so much as embody the tortured mensch we imagine or hope he must have been like.) HitFix’s Danie Fienberg wrote he was shocked to discover that Segel is “a chameleon”: “It’s a transformative” — there’s that word again — “performance in terms of vocal timbre and cadence and in terms of physicality. Segel captures the intellect and loneliness and discomfort that we sensed Wallace to have and even when Segel plays Wallace's considerable sense of humor, the timing and rhythms are different from what he honed in his years on Judd Apatow productions.” David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter said it was Segel’s best work since Freaks and Geeks, which is high praise indeed since pretty much nothing will ever top Freaks and Geeks.

At the post-screening Q&A, Segel said he worked off Lipsky’s book and Margulies’s screenplay as well as Lipsky’s raw interview tapes and every interview of Wallace’s that he could find. “And then I read, and I read and I read,” he said. “I started a book club in the little town that I live in outside of L.A. with three really great book dorks who had read Infinite Jest like five or six times. And we talked through it. I say book dorks with such love, you know? And we just talked a lot.” Segel went on, “I think one of the things with David Foster Wallace, what’s so special about his writing is he touches on some very universal human feelings. So I tried to really pay attention to the parts of us that are the same.”