Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

IFC Films

 

By Michael T. Dennis

 

Adapted from David Foster Wallace's celebrated collection of short stories, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” marks an auspicious debut for director John Krasinski, better known for his role as Jim Halpert on NBC's “The Office.” Funny and astute, the film deals with the poignant subject of the modern male.

 

As writer, director, and producer, Krasinski has helmed a film that blends documentary motifs with an overarching narrative about one woman's quest to understand men as they exist in today's post-feminist world. Its fictional interviewer and imagined subjects reveal some true, startling facts about the ideas and emotions that complicate relationships and promote stereotypes about both sexes.

 

By focusing on men, “Brief Interviews” turns the romantic comedy convention of asking what women want on its head.  Thematically, the it recalls other films that acknowledge the absurdity of thinking that such a question can be easily answered, among them Nancy Meyers' “What Women Want” and Robert Altman's “Dr. T and the Women.” However, while both of these films use male subjects to explore the fragile, intuitive psyche of postmodern females, “Brief Interviews” turns the mirror back on men, and what it reveals is not always pretty.

 

By adapting Wallace's short stories, Krasinski returns to a formative work from his own past. He had appeared in a stage version of “Brief Interviews” while studying playwriting at Brown University, which sets off an interest in Wallace and beginning the transition from writer to actor. This new film version, which retains the humor and intelligence of Wallace's book, is thoroughly updated for the screen.  For example, Krasinski has added the character of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a graduate student in anthropology who is collecting the interviews.

 

Sara is a suitable surrogate for the viewers, even if she is an imperfect scientist. Motivated by her own recent break-up, she carried out interviews that are intended to reveal just what it is about some men that makes them so dangerous to women like herself.  Which means there will be unintended emotional consequences from what is supposed to be a rational, scientific endeavor.

 

It also means that Sara's work and personal life will become increasingly intertwined, as she turns overheard coffee shop conversations into data for her study, using the numerous formal interviews as puzzle pieces she struggles to put together. A late visit from her ex-boyfriend (played by Krasinski in a small but essential role) gives Sara some measure of closure, as she comes to the realization that everyone is flawed, and that in this respect at least men and women are entirely alike.

 

“Brief Interviews” is told by employing inventive, fractured narrative style, in which scenes overlap, repeat, and appear out of chronological order. It's as if we, along with Sara, are poring over the transcripts of so many accumulated interviews, searching for the connections and commonalities that will reveal the truth. Many of the interviews are presented from Sara's point of view, showing a man seated in an empty room, speaking into a tape recorder about some element of his sex life or masculine identity. The rest of the time Sara plays the part of an academic, closely watching the behavior of her male classmates, students, and professor.  More of an observer than an active agent in the whole process, she keeps the actual dialogue to minimum.

 

The interviews themselves comprise much of the film's narrative time, giving it a dark comic tone. There are moments of patent comedy, like the man who compulsively screams political phrases during sex, along with more abject cases (the truly hideous men), such as a self-assured, one-armed man who describes how he uses his disability to manipulate women by arousing their sympathies, then preying upon them.

 

Arguably, the most poignant interview is one that actually has nothing to do with sex. Instead, it is the story of a middle-aged man about the lifelong shame that came from his father's job as a bathroom attendant at a ritzy hotel. Sacrificing his dignity to support a family, the father's story draws attention to how the sometimes-cruel tendencies of men are not reserved for women but become ingrained in the fabric of society.

 

The bathroom interview is also a place for “Brief Interviews” to stretch its cinematic legs, realizing a higher order of the visual style that has already proven a worthy compliment to the film's inspired storytelling. As the interviewee speaks, his father enters the space, which becomes the gilded washroom where he toiled. Father and son confront each other across time and space to state their respective cases, giving Sara new insights into the lingering effects of traditional images of men as members of high and low social classes.

 

This section of the film hinges on fine performances from an ensemble that includes familiar Hollywood character actors, along with some talented newcomers. Julianne Nicholson excels at portraying a woman who is in the process of turning her heartbreak into something constructive, but who remains heartbroken nevertheless. Often the only thing to indicate that she is overwhelmed by one of her subjects is a quick reaction shot, yet Nicholson never misses a beat.

 

Not surprisingly, Krasinski proves himself to be a fine director of actors.  But he's also  a bold, attentive adapter, taking the interview scenes directly from Wallace's stories, seldom flinching as he makes structural changes necessary to craft a successful film. Given the popular attention paid to Wallace's work since his 2008 death, it is encouraging to see an adaptation that works so well as a film, regardless of how faithfully it recreates its source.

 

Cast

 

Sarah Quinn – Julianne Nicholson

Subject #14 – Ben Shenkman

Professor Adams / Subject #30 – Timothy Hutton

Subject #15 – Michael Cervis

Subject #51 – Corey Stoll

Subject #19 – Chris Messina

Kevin / Subject #28 – Max Minghella

Evan / Subject #28 – Lou Taylor Pucci

Subject #11 – Will Arnett

Ryan / Subject #20 – John Krasinski

Subject #72 – Will Forte

 

Credits

 

Salty Features and Woodshed Entertainment

Directed by John Krasinski

Written by John Krasinski from a story collection by David Foster Wallace

Producers, Kevin Patrick Connors, Thomas Fatone, Chris Hayes, Eva Kolodner, John Krasinski, Yael Melamede, Dori Oskowitz, George Paaswell, Michael Schur, James Suskin

Cinematographer, John Bailey

Editors, Zene Baker, Rich Fox

Casting, Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith             

Production Designer, Stephen Beatrice

Art Director, Pierre Rovira