One of the challenges of Sundance is letting buzz steer you to good films and away from bad ones, but you have to take everything with a grain of salt, since you never know where those raves or pans are coming from. If everybody’s saying one thing, sometimes you can trust it (count me out for the appropriately titled “Manure”), but sometimes you want to be cautious.
Take, for example. John Krasinski’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” I’d been hearing bad things about the project since before I left Los Angeles and the word was no better on the ground in Utah.
Having actually seen the movie, I feel like the negative words were blown out of proportion. At 72 minutes, “Brief Interviews” is hardly worth getting worked up about, which doesn’t sound kind, but it isn’t
an insult either.
It’s an exercise. It’s a training ground for Krasinski to develop his voice as a writer and director. It a series of character-driven monologues for an assortment of very fine actors. It’s a filmed reading of what would probably work fairly well as a piece of Off Broadway counterprogramming to “The Vagina Monologues.” But it isn’t a movie.
[More thoughts after the bump…]
David Foster Wallace’s book — which I confess I’ve only read in bits — is (as the title might suggest) a series of brief interviews built around a theme, burrowing deeply into the male psyche. For the movie, Krasinski has introduced a new central character, Julianne Nicholson’s Sara, a graduate student conducting the interviews in question.
Krasinski has constructed a whole backstory for the character, that after being dumped by her seemingly perfect boyfriend (Krasinski) she decides to conduct these interviews as a way of understanding what went wrong in her own relationship (under the guise of a thesis project). Her friends and loved ones become subjects, but she also finds herself playing
anthropologist-in-the-wild, recording conversations that go with her research.
The newly installed structure gives the movie a logical flow. We learn things about her relationship and the interviews themselves become darker and more emotional. What it also does, though, is makes everything that follows seem annoying predetermined. It weakens the character to have her motivations this transparent and hyper-emotional and it weakens the film as a whole to have the subtext of the interviews spelled out so very literally. Any profundity is dampened by this excessive underlining.
What Krasinski has done, I think, is turn David Foster Wallace’s book into a Neil LaBute play. It’s about men who do bad things to women and other men, but usually in the name of their own insecurities and weaknesses, though there’s a lack of dramatic tension to the fact that the characters on screen aren’t doing the bad things to each other. They’re just talking to a tape recorder and to Sara.
The monologues themselves stick very closely to the prose from the original stories, though the new context and form have changed some of their tones. Krasinski goes back and forth on whether he wants to open the stories up. Some interviews are really just the camera trained on the actor for the duration, while others involve reenactments of visualization. Some of the stories have been pulled out into the real world, which makes for another awkward theatrical conceit.
For all of Krasinski’s limitations in making these short stories into a viable big screen experience, his generosity with his actors is evident. The film is spectacularly well-cast, with Krasinski giving semi-cinematic exposure to a number of TV veterans whose parts are small but substantive, at least from an actorly perspective.
“The Wire” co-stars Clarke Peters and Frankie Faison have two of the best interviews, one as a ladies man and the other as a son reflecting on the dignity of his father’s job. Josh Charles, who really doesn’t work enough, gets a showcase scene as a serial monogamist who repeats the same story to a number of women. Christopher Meloni has the most LaBute-esque of the overhead conversation, talking about an emotionally vulnerable woman at an airport. Also doing brief-but-good work are Joey Slotnick and theater stars Michael Cerveris and Denis O’Hare. Of the performers in the real world, Dominic Cooper has the meatiest roles as one of Sara’s students.
In isolation, in fact, I’m not prepared to say that any of the performances are bad, even when the performance styles (like though of Will Forte and Will Arnett) don’t necessarily feel organic. It’s as a whole that “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” fails to hold up and trying to contextualize the interviews as the fruits of feminism doesn’t illuminate anything.
I don’t know if anybody really could have made this book work as a movie and just because Krasinski doesn’t succeed doesn’t mean that it was wrong of the “Office” star to flex these muscles. Like I said, “Brief Interviews” is an exercise.
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