Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Solid scenes and screen tests
In reading David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,’’ it may never have crossed your mind that his assault on a particular type of gender politics would make a cute little movie. That’s because it wouldn’t. John Krasinski, that nice guy from “The Office,’’ didn’t seem to notice. He’s strip-mined Wallace’s 10-year-old story collection, which sought to castigate the narcissistic men of 20th-century fiction. His gaze was fixed, seemingly, on John Updike. In the title experiment, various anonymous men respond to questions about what kind of sex they’ve had, what kind of sex they like, and what they’ve done to lure a woman into sex.
Krasinski, focusing mostly on that title story, has other plans. What was once a disturbance of the literary peace is now just a painfully literal date movie: “He’s Just Not That Into You - But What’s Your Phone Number? ’’ The anonymous subjects’ transcripts are dramatized by an assortment of highly specific actors - Timothy Hutton, Dominic Cooper, Max Minghella, Will Forte, Chris Messina, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Meloni, Krasinski, and others. For much of the film, many of these men talk at a grad student (Julianne Nicholson) gathering information for her thesis. She, for the most part, just stands there waiting for something to happen.
The men try to unpack women. They try to unpack themselves. But mostly they try to unpack Foster’s language, which produces both some stilted monologues and a few that sear. The Americans Clarke Peters, of “The Wire,’’ Meloni, of “Law & Order: SVU,’’ and Messina find wit and feeling in their speeches, while Cooper and Minghella, two young Englishmen, bring Wallace’s dense tangle of ideas as close to theater as it can get. But treating this material as though it were Shakespeare, or David Mamet or Neil LaBute for that matter, drives a wedge between us and Wallace’s cultural point. Now we’re just watching a college production of “Carnal Knowledge.’’
These performers, as inspired as some of them are, spoil a sinister book with earnest acting. That, obviously, is an actor’s prerogative, but the sight of these people sitting at a table and soliloquizing smacks of screen tests. Krasinski doesn’t sit at a table, but like all the monologuists, he’s playing one of Wallace’s ideas, not a character. So try as he does to convey rage, deviousness, and remorse, Krasinski appears less than competent, which is only the case with his movie work. He looks at home with the spontaneity of “The Office.’’ Watching him here, I felt the same urge to cringe that one does during that first week of “American Idol.’’ He’s not acting so much as he is auditioning.
If we learn nothing else about Krasinski as a filmmaker, it’s that he thinks more is more. The scenes are layered atop each other so that the same conversation happens about five different ways. That’s one way to approximate the density of Wallace’s writing. It doesn’t work, but it’s something. Still, the movie is a crosscut, nonsequential mess. You can follow it, but the attempt to preempt boredom with busy editing is a poor stab at excitement. The movie is mush despite itself. Krasinski’s taken Wallace’s book and put it in a food processor.