By Diana Metzger
When I told my husband I was writing this defense, he laughed in my face. My husband has a very well worn, well-loved paperback copy of Infinite Jest that he reads and re-reads. He and his brother spent a whole vacation trading favorite passages. The idea of Jason Segel portraying Wallace, the man who wrote this masterwork of postmodern fiction, is blasphemy. I will admit to not being DFW’s biggest fan. He’s not my literary cup of tea, but I can respect how beloved he (and his memory is) to so many people. His suicide still feels a bit raw and it’s hard to watch your idols be captured on film in a fictionalized way, even if it’s based on fact.
An announcement was made of the casting of Jason Segel as DFW in The End of the Tour, the film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book – an account of Lipsky’s time accompanying Wallace of his book tour of Infinite Jest.
I’ve been skeptical of the casting of some actors playing beloved authors; I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by these same people. I preferred Toby Jones playing Truman Capote to the more lauded Philip Seymour Hoffman. I liked both Sandra Bullock & Catherine Keener’s takes on Harper Lee. Though I’m sure I’ll have many haters on this opinion, but I even have a strong affection for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia Plath. Who could have thunk that that wealthy ice princess could play such a fierce, unraveling genius? She really pulled it off. I believe Segel could as well.
There’s also a rich Hollywood tradition of giving comedians a shot at sadness. Jim Carrey’s best movie, in my opinion, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you asked someone if Ace Ventura could play a character like Joel Barish, I bet they would have laughed you off just like people are doing to Segel. The difference is that Segel is taking on a biopic, not a work of fiction. It’s a bold move.
I understand literary fans bristling at the idea of Segel, the Muppet man, playing the conflicted, intelligent, tortured literary lion. In all his roles to date Segel has played a sweet-natured galumph. It’s easy to wonder where anyone got the idea he’d be capable of going the acting distance to play the role. I have a few guestimates for why I trust this very tall man in a very tall order of a role.
James Ponsoldt is slated to direct this film. He directed this past summer’s charmer The Spectacular Now. The film is about a slick, seemingly confident teenage boy covering up a multitude of emotional insecurities. It was directed with a real warmth and with a smart touch to the darkest parts of the film. I believe he could get a subtle, interesting performance out of Segel. David Margulies is writing the DFW film. He won a Pulitzer for drama, teaches English and Theatre at Yale, wrote many fantastic plays, and was charged with attempting to adapt the novel Middlesex (written by DFW contemporary Jeffrey Eugenides). You’ve got a very capable writer and director on this project. Segel will also play opposite Jesse Eisenberg, an actor with an eye for great films with great casts. Segel will be in very good company in this film.
Jason Segel hasn’t yet gotten the chance to show his dramatic chops, but I think he’s up for the task. This is a man that allowed himself to be fully, frontally nude in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That choice was not just played for comedy, but for vulnerability. He didn’t look sexy and he didn’t look like a total buffoon—he looked refreshingly honest. Segel also has a real soul. Any fan of Freaks and Geeks can tell you that his breakthrough turn as Nick showed the actor is capable of being a big fragile guy. Nick had a bald ambitious yearning and when his stern father chewed him out, Segel showed a deep sadness in his eyes. Even at the young age Segel played Nick, he could show sadness in the smallest gestures.
From David Foster Wallace’s writing and interviews, he was a man with a great sense of smart humor and a deep well of depression. I’d like to believe Jason Segel could be capable of both those emotions as well, we already know he can achieve the former; who’s to say he can’t achieve the latter?