Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
About a month before Brief Interviews with Hideous Men started filming—and not long before the author David Foster Wallace committed suicide—director and ambitious adaptor John Krasinski (Jim in TV's The Office) discussed the project with Wallace. Wallace's book—an exploration of the male psyche via 23 interviews with men all discussing a personal grotesque or bizarre characteristic—had been deemed unfilmable. But Krasinski was determined to bring the material to the big screen (it was adapted for stage in 2000) and created a character to help tie together the inchoate narrative.
"I told him [Wallace] how I had changed the script to center around a woman who is either a psychology or anthropology grad student and that's her connection to these men, she's interviewing them for her thesis," Krasinski explained in a recent interview. "He [Wallace] paused, and then he said that's what he was trying to do in the book. He wanted to write about a character that you never hear from and never see, but by all the characters around her, you know who she is."
If he had lived to see the movie's release, I have to think Wallace would have been impressed with the way that Krasinski's Sara (Julianne Nicholson) manages to embody his aim by being both at the center of the film and also practically invisible. I would be shocked if her dialogue ran to more than five pages total, a pittance for the central character of a movie. Sara is the calm at the center of this tornado of testosterone, so calm she might actually be a vacuum.
Wallace wondered if Krasinski's decision to give Sara a personal connection to one of her subjects was the answer to making sense of the whole thing. And I think it might have been. But this Sara is so slight, she provides none of the consolations of coherence that one might hope for while wading through esoteric monologues about what women really want. She certainly offers little attempt to answer that question—verbally or otherwise—and spends most of the movie listening impassively (with a few notable exceptions) to her subjects.
Speaking of those subjects, Krasinski has wrangled a notable lineup including Timothy Hutton, Will Arnett, Chris Messina, Frankie Faison, and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard to fill the ranks of his hideous men. It's interesting that Krasinski, famous for the high populist humor on The Office, went for what might be considered high art in his directorial debut. The movie is light on actual conversation; instead, most of the words come in monologues that create an effect not unlike a series of somewhat disjointed one-act plays. It's fair to say that anyone who wanders into Brief Interviews hoping for a whiff of Office-like shenanigans will be sorely disappointed.
That said, while Brief Interviews is certainly brief (clocking in at 80 minutes), the men aren't particularly hideous. Yes, Bobby Cannavale plays an amputee who brags about using his story to seduce women via their sympathy. And Dominic Cooper is a student who argues that rape can be a positive force in a woman's life. But just below the hubris and nervous twitching and absurd behavior, there's palpable longing to be understood and even "saved."