It's unbelievably sweet that John Krasinski put his blood, sweat, and presumably, profits from The Office into writing and directing a film adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. That may sound patronizing, but having watched this film twice now, knitting together the gossamer strands of plot while searching for a profound, literary point that proved too delicate to find with the naked eye his generosity of intent is really the main impression that remains. He read, he loved, and unfortunately, he did not conquer.
Krasinski, who also has a starring role as the main hideous man, feels a deep connection to the book, one of three story collections Wallace published in his too-short lifetime. While taking a playwriting class at Brown University, Krasinski participated in a stage reading of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and he says the experience made him want to be an actor. All of us who enjoy Krasinski's work as Jim Halpert, the clever, mischievous, solidly good guy he plays on The Office can be grateful to Wallace for that.
In crafting the screenplay, which dances with abstraction, Krasinski created a new character, Sara Queen (Julianne Nicholson, star of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and indie films such as Flannel Pajamas and Tully). Sara is a graduate student studying feminism. In a number of stagy, self conscious scenes, Sara interviews with men in a professional setting behind a desk, with microphone and tape recorder and then listens in on conversations between men in more public places, restaurants, apartment buildings, parties and such. In the film's last scene, we find out that she's studying the impact of feminism, although the interactions we witness seem mostly directed toward proving the thesis Men Are Awful, or, put in Wallace terms, "A Supposedly Fun Gender I Should Avoid Forever."
Sara is down in the dumps and has been in hiding, or at least this is what we gather from the congratulations she gets for coming to a departmental gathering from her graduate advisor, Professor Adams (Timothy Hutton, nobly portraying the kind of academic who would look down a co-ed's shirt, but go no farther). Nicholson doesn't get to do enough, but she's a good choice; we always know what's going on behind her quiet, freckle-faced beauty. Krasinski shows up periodically as Ryan, the ex responsible for Sara's misery.
Nothing about her male subjects should encourage further dating. Bobby Cannavale uses his amputated arm to sucker women into bed. Dominic Cooper is a fast talking undergrad, who employs the victim defense to improve his grade. In a gleeful little sequence, Josh Charles gives the same speech five times over to break up with different women. The less hideous men, the ones who describe being actually touched by women, like Krasinski and Christopher Meloni (whose bit feels inspired by In the Company of Men) come across as lost and rather foolish boys.
The hyper-awareness of many of the interviews it's as if the subjects had been given truth serum and knew it only enhances the sense of disengagement. Hutton's character describes meeting his beautiful wife, who is already a mother, and says he knew he ought to marry her because he'd never do better. "I remember thinking, this is amazing, it's like she's already, pre-tested? I actually thought about that. Is it shallow? Does it sound shallow? Or do you think the truth behind this kind of thing will always sound kind of shallow? Everybody's real reasons?"
One hopes not, Professor Adams, although here? Yes, they do sound shallow, and that's painful for anyone who believes men have more dimensions than hideousness. Wallace was a writer who pieced together such complicated crazy quilts of words that you had to take his essays and prose in slowly, inch by inch (or in the case of me and Infinite Jest, absorb over the course of a leisurely decade. Or two). You hope for that same richness in Krasinski's film. Instead I found myself thinking of those man-on-the-street interviews Sex and the City used during its first season, in which men copped to their hideous dating practices, seemingly for the sole purpose of churning up female disgust. It is difficult to imagine David Foster Wallace putting pen to paper with that intent.