David Foster Wallace’s writing can be a mile-long smorgasbord; a sumptuously maddening buffet so overwhelming you might starve before you fill your plate. Even in short-story form, he can be daunting but worthwhile. It almost goes without saying that translating this complex weave of wordplay to the screen is a damn near impossible task even for a seasoned director, much less a relative rookie. The book Brief Interviews with Hideous Men exists in Q&A format with only the A side of interviews between the man and an unseen and unspoken female interrogator. The stories — a combination of conversations, anecdotes, and diatribes — range in subject matter from absurd to poignant to repulsive. John Krasinski makes some bold choices, but not enough risks. He ultimately ends up with a phenomenal mess of a film. Brief Interviews has moments that are terrific, and with the brilliant cast assembled, you almost wish Krasinski went the Eve Ensler route and kept it sordid and confessional. Instead, the movie gets snared in the bland framework of a feminist graduate thesis and becomes unappealing and droll.
With something as fractured and piecemeal as the book, there were obviously going to be massive structural shifts and updating. The most telling shift was creating the character of the unseen female questioner. Julianne Nicholson of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” fame plays Sara Quinn, the graduate student at the center of the movie’s plot who conducts the brief interviews with the hideous menfolk. Krasinski plays fast and hard, creating scenes where we see Sara outside of the brief interview sessions. While this could have added an incredible layer to the intensity of the stories, instead it serves as a generic L.L. Bean magazine layout to keep the flavorless monologues afloat. Sara ends up embodying the faceless, empty feminist placeholder represented by intermittent Q’s in the short story collection. When she does talk, it’s as if she’s reciting cue cards left over from “The View” — meaningless and stereotypical prattle you could find in the comment section of Jezebel. I almost wish Krasinski had either left her out entirely or chosen to make her silent, because it would have had more impact. And it’s not Nicholson’s fault. She’s a perfect fit for the contextual-clue based woman, but she’s a non-character, coming off like a half-inflated concept of a personality.
Most of the straight interview sessions play like Krasinski had no idea what to do with the stories in the book, so he just picked someone to read them. Frankly, I don’t know how to make Ben Shenkman’s man who orgasms and shouts out absurd political chants anything more than a punchline. The same can strangely be said of the man whose father went to great lengths to restrain himself with handcuffs so he wouldn’t lash out at his children. Krasinski is able to make some of the stories work that didn’t come off so well when read on the page. Will Forte takes a really cut-and-dry “I Love Women” passage and gives an incredibly uncomfortable and awkward reading, all with a massive creepy grin. Bobby Cannavale, who is easily one of the most unexpectedly brilliant character actors working today, plays a one-armed man bragging about how he uses his disability to guilt/con women into hooking up with him.
It’s a mixed bag with the interviewees. Krasinski is all over the place in his portrayal of the sessions. Like twisting the contrast and color knobs, for every story that works, he’s got a few more that fall flat on their faces. Some of the sessions feature straight monologue with a microphone and a grey industrial wall as the backdrop. Others are done as performance pieces: sitting in a coffee shop chatting, talking to a doorway in a hall, confessing an infidelity in a living room. There are two stories that are done as a combination of storytelling and reenactment, a Ferris Buellerian fourth wall bashing one-act. This is where Krasinski shines the brightest. Blending the representations makes them feel like performance art, and it keeps it from becoming a humorless men-are-jerks montage.
Krasinki modifies several of the subjects into students and classmates of Sara, which was a glaring mistake. It’s safe to say that if Sara knows them in real life, they aren’t going to be compelling in the interviews. Which was a choice of Krasinski’s to prove that the men couldn’t be honest without some sort of anonymity, and while I respect that, it wastes some potential. Truth be told, I only had a problem with one instance wherein all the characters were made to be acquaintances: in the case of Joey Slotnik, and that’s because the story was totally mauled for the screen. In the movie, the story is nothing more than a masturbation fantasy about getting together with a woman in the gym. In the short story, the character is actually in an Eastern Bloc immigrant in a mental institution. He was fascinated with the television show “Bewitched” and would have sexual fantasies about enticing women in the institutional government gym where his family worked out. He would freeze time a la Samantha’s nose wiggle and then proceed to engage in vigorous and multi-positioned coitus with the object of his amore. Only, he began to realize if he were to freeze time for an hour or so, the people in the gym might become aware of the gap in time and start to feel confused and possibly get injured. He theorized that to get away with frozen time sex he would have to freeze not just the gym, but the whole neighborhood so he could pleasure himself. He began to go concentrically outward in his obsession with temporal stasis: he’d have to freeze the city, the country, the world. What if there were other universes? He couldn’t engage in his masturbatory fantasy without intense guilt. It’s such an absurdly amazing story, cut down here to a pudgy gym-dork fantasy about getting physical with the gal on the elliptical.
In the book, many of the subjects are former lovers of Sara’s, and most of the sessions are of them breaking up with her. Krasinski switches up some of the interactions, and it only works once, maybe twice. Chris Messina — Julie’s husband in Julie & Julia — plays a former boyfriend meeting up with Sara in a bathroom line at the gallery. It’s about as enticing as standing in a bathroom line waiting to pee. Will Arnett’s asshole character is actually supposed to be Sara’s lover, but instead he plays a guy begging his girlfriend to let him back into their apartment, and for me, it’s just a waste of an actor.
The only other time Krasinski actively cheats a story is with Dominic Cooper, who plays one of Sara’s students. Krasinski turns one of the most controversial and compelling moments in the entire piece into a grade debate over a term paper topic. Cooper’s student puts forward the thesis that rape and incestual abuse don’t necessarily have to be an entirely negative event. Did you hear that? It was the sound of 70 pairs of claws lashing out. Bear with me before you bear maul me. He proposes that rape might make a woman stronger, prove to her that she can survive something so unthinkable that it’s a transformative moment that might cause her to create something powerful and beautiful in her life that would never have been possible without the horrible trauma. He compares rape to the holocaust, saying that without surviving the concentration camp Viktor Frankl would never have written Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s shocking and provocative, and lest we forget, the mindset of a quote-unquote “hideous man.” But Krasinski muddles the punch up by cutting the confrontation across three different settings and by giving Sara some really flaccid responses to such a heated topic. They turn the powerhouse finale into an afterschool-special deus ex machina.
It’s only fair Krasinski botches his own scene in order to hit the third tier on the triple threat of writer/director/actor. He gives himself the final monologue, and it’s a huge mistake. The character’s supposed to be filled with a Christian Bale-like effete arrogance, and Krasinski’s far too affable to play snooty. He makes every mistake he did throughout the rest of the movie, only all at once. He takes the tale of preppie does hippie cum enlightenment and turns it into a relationship confessional. By doing so, with what was an amazingly transformational love story in the book, the climax story of the movie feels like absolute bullshit.
The biggest problem is that the showstopper stories are so disconnected from the useless frame story, it just furthers the pointlessness of the plot, which unfortunately falls on the shoulders of poor Timothy Hutton’s advisor/professor. He gets one easy speech, and then spends the rest of the film nudging the plot progression like the guy at the slaughterhouse who shocks the cattle up the ramp. One of the more shady stories, featuring Josh Charles, is cleverly done through Krasinski’s choice of having a guy offer shallow “apologies” in a jumping monologue delivered to seven or eight different girls, and in brilliant locales including over a Skype chat and in the bleachers at a sporting event. Christopher Meloni and Denis O’Hare are overheard having a conversation about an airport encounter. The two businessmen live up to every sense of the term hideous men — at least as envisioned through the prep-school monocle of DFW. From start to finish, it’s so well put together with delivery and staging, leaping from the coffee shop to the airport, you regret seeing all the other scenes done straight. The other noteworthy story is Frankie Faison bitterly recounting the story of his bathroom attendant father. While beautiful and powerful, it makes you ponder why he would be lumped together with the other so-called hideous men. Practically the entire scene is a back and forth between father and son staged in the very posh high society bathroom. Again, another instance of Krasinski showing that he actually CAN stage a scene properly.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is just that — brief. It clocks in at 80 minutes, and that’s if you sit through the entire credits. With the luxury of talent at his disposal, it makes you wonder why Krasinski didn’t choose to go a little further. He might have bitten off a little more than he can chew with this project, but he did prove that he isn’t lost behind the cameras. While making some broad choices, he managed to stay relatively true to the vision of David Foster Wallace. Even if this wasn’t a home run, he still earned the chance to take another swing.
Brian Prisco is a bitter little man stomping sour grapes into fine whine in the valleys of North Hollywood. He’s a screenwriter who’s never been professionally produced, an actor who’s never joined a guild, and a director who made one bad film. He’s one waiter apron away from a cliche, and he’s available for children’s parties. You can tell him how much you hate him at priscogospel at hotmail dot com.