Subject 14: Ben Shenkman plays one of many nameless men who confess dirty deeds to Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson).
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
- Director: John Krasinski
- Genre: Dark Comedy, Drama, Literary Adaptation
- Running Time: 80 minutes
Not rated, but likely to offend certain feminist sensibilities
With: Julianne Nicholson, Timothy Hutton, John Krasinski
With their dense, ironic, self-referential prose, the fragmented narratives of the late David Foster Wallace are usually considered unfilmable. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — the first attempt to push Wallace's writing from the page to the screen — John Krasinski does little to contradict prevailing wisdom.
Dramatically, the stories that make up the Brief Interviews cycle are best suited to staged monologues. In fact, that's how Krasinski first encountered them — as a playwriting student at Brown University. Fans of the actor from his starring role in The Office can thank that experience for inspiring the writer to pursue acting full time. The same material serves as the inspiration for his debut as a writer-director, though the results are less cause for gratitude.
Wallace's stories offer little on which to hang a plot, consisting only of brutally candid answers by the titular men — usually about women, sex, and relationships — in response to unrevealed questions from an anonymous inquisitor. The rambling monologues open windows into disturbing corners of the male psyche, but also, in their common themes, suggest a few things about the unnamed person posing the questions. It's this character that Krasinski makes his focus as he does his best to give Wallace's raw materials cinematic form and structure.
Whining and Dining: Once she begins her research, Sara (Nicholson, with Timothy Hutton) finds herself the unwitting absolver of male guilt.
Whining and Dining: Once she begins her research, Sara (Nicholson, with Timothy Hutton) finds herself the unwitting absolver of male guilt. IFC Films
The film's shaky framing device centers on Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), an anthropology grad student engaged in a study of the inner emotional worlds of men. Her ill-defined project — consisting mostly of interviews with her male subjects, conducted in a nondescript gray-brick room — isn't just an exercise in intellectual curiosity. Having recently been dumped by an outwardly sensitive, inwardly callow young pianist (Krasinski), she's seeking answers on a more personal level.
Sara begins to take her work home with her, and everywhere she goes, she encounters more "subjects," in snippets of overheard coffeehouse chatter, conversations with friends, the bickering of her neighbors, and unsolicited confessions of shallowness by her graduate adviser (Timothy Hutton).
Wallace's words are dropped into Krasinski's scenario, but they're square pegs. No matter how lovingly the director tries to make them fit, to give them a context, they resist his efforts. That the monologues feel disembodied from one another isn't the problem; it's that they never satisfyingly connect with Sara's narrative.
Most frustrating is that while the director shows real flair for some of the material, the whole's episodic nature results in some sequences that work brilliantly — and others that flame out spectacularly. Josh Charles shines in one deftly constructed cross-cut montage, delivering the same pathetic insecurity speech to five different women over the chiming strains of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B (a welcome contrast to the bland piano jazz that dominates most of the soundtrack). Later, Frankie Faison is riveting in a bitter reflection on his bathroom-attendant father's years attending to the personal habits of the rich and powerful.
As much potential as Krasinski shows in these brief flashes, the balance of the film is as dull and colorless as the gray-brick backdrop in Sara's interview room. His reverence for the source material is obvious and admirable, but it also prevents him from developing his own original ideas. Faced with the unenviable choice between honoring his daunting inspiration and telling his own story, the director shoots straight down the middle — and misses both targets.