Just about as abstruse in conception as his infamous gargantuan novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men features a string of literate, unrelenting, and often savagely honest monologues by (frequently disturbed) men identified only by number, speaking to some unnamed interlocutor located somewhere behind the reader's eyes. Its verve and wordplay make for dazzling reading, but it’s all set at a critical emotional remove, as though written with gloves on. As source material for a film, it would seem sheer death. Article continues below
John Krasinski's adaptation of Wallace's book creates a smart and clear framework for linking all these monologues together without overly simplifying the underlying material. In Krasinski's take -- the lanky, deadpan star of The Office also wrote the screenplay -- the interviewer is one Sara Quinn (played in a fragile key by Julianne Nicholson), an anthropological doctoral candidate researching the male psyche. The late Wallace himself blessed this approach; amazingly, he had also imagined that his unnamed narrator was a female grad student studying the male psyche.
By opening up his film, Krasinski wants to avoid turning it into a theatrical exercise, but some moments in Brief Interviews do come off as stagy. One running element has two student waiters hurling theories about women and life directly to the camera. In another scene, a man tells a story while acting it out, narrating his thoughts on what happened as he performs it. But a good deal of this short, brisk, and barbed comedy is spent with Quinn as she listens to men talk about their lives, and the effective performances keep us watching.
Clark Peters swings by Quinn's cell-like interview room to expound on some theories about the battle of the sexes, his slinky demeanor making his words purr across the table. Bobby Cannavale delivers an absurdly funny piece on how he utilizes his amputated arm to pick up women. Dominic Cooper obsessively corners Quinn with a fervency that masks some horrible scars none too well. Frankie Faison relates a beautiful little piece about the daily humiliations undergone by his stoic statue of a father. All of them seem trapped, talking themselves in circles and seemingly leaving Quinn none the wiser at the end of it all.
Krasinski stitches these raw blasts of the subconscious with interludes that exude a pleasing, Woody Allen-esque tone, all fall colors and potent theorizing over white wine. A number of comic stars circulate amongst the cast (Will Forte, Will Arnett) to keep things light-hearted, while Timothy Hutton (as Quinn's professor) brings an air of quirky intellectual curiosity to the whole affair.
Brief Interviews can seem at times like a somewhat sexist creation, watching this woman undertake a research project not just out of academic curiosity but also as a way to cope with a recent break-up. But the men she comes into contact with are so baffling, enraged, bottled-up, and self-contradictory. Given the opportunity, who wouldn't try to figure them out?