Henry James famously described War and Peace as a “loose, baggy monster,” an appellation that some of David Foster Wallace’s detractors may be inclined to apply to the late writer’s own books. But in adapting a handful of stories from Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, John Krasinski has created a monster of his own, though for his project the terms “loose” and “baggy” don’t fit nearly so well as “dense” and “unwieldy.” Actually, the film is only monstrous in the way that any failed entry in the cinema of ideas can be described as monstrous, an attempt to pack too many strands of thought into too little of space—in this case 80 minutes of screen time—without developing a rigorous enough attitude toward the material.
Krasinski structures his film, which he wrote, directed, and stars in, around a series of fictional interviews with men of various ages, races, and apparent social classes (the “hideous” individuals of the title), which he intercuts with more traditionally structured dramatic scenes. The Q&A’s are conducted by Sara (Julianne Nicholson), a young professor who, we learn late in the film, is investigating the effects of the “feminist movement” on the contemporary male. If her subject sample can be taken as representative, these effects are anything but positive. The image of manhood that emerges throughout the course of the film is of a neurotic, potentially violent species, troubled by countless sexual hang-ups, ranging from the merely humorous (one man is compelled to yell out, “Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!” every time he climaxes) to the outright loathsome (another cynically relates how he uses a physical disability to emotionally blackmail women into sex) and on into darker territory.
Eventually the interviews open out beyond these rigidly structured segments, seeping over into the territory of the characters’ daily lives. As Sara deals with a student hoping to discuss his provocative term paper or confronts a cheating boyfriend, the men in her life become interview subjects in their own right. Krasinski increasingly blurs the distinction between these real-life conversations and Sara’s official interviews by filming both sets of segments with his static camera fixed on the subject, no matter who’s doing the talking, and using the same array of jump cuts to suggest lapses in time. The result is a dense pile of incidents and ideas whose implications are difficult to sort out. And when the filmmaker further stirs the pot by introducing such dissonant elements as a running chorus of two young waiters who attempt to answer the Freudian chestnut “What do women want?” in elevated academic jargon and a character’s enlisting of Viktor Frankel to provide a philosophical take on rape, the project moves dangerously close to incoherence.
Brief Interviews is interesting in pieces, but overwhelming in its totality. No doubt there was so much good stuff in the source material that Krasinski just couldn’t leave any of it out, but despite the director’s frequent intercutting between segments and use of overlapping sound to suggest thematic continuity, the film feels too disconnected to be effective. Never is this sampler approach more evident that in an odd interpolated sequence in which a black subject (Frankie Faison) attempts to come to terms with his father’s degrading employment as a men’s room attendant at a posh hotel. While all the rest of Sara’s interviews, as well as the majority of the film’s thematic thrust, are centered around questions of sexuality, this segment takes filial relations as its subject and then privileges the exchange by devoting a long, unbroken chunk of a screen time to an imagined confrontation between father and son enacted in the washroom where the older man toiled his life away.
As such, the segment stands as something like a microcosm of the film’s problems. It’s compelling enough—and even moving—when taken on its own terms, but when considered as part of the undigested mass that constitutes the movie’s bulk, it’s not exactly clear where it fits in. But even those segments that hew closer to the project’s central thematic concerns hardly seem much better integrated. Sara’s project may revolve around a quest for enlightenment, but whatever truths are to be found in Krasinski’s film must be searched out at the margins, where they emerge periodically, before being swallowed up in the movie’s headlong rush to its next cluster of ideas.