My boyfriend insisted I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men when we started dating. “It will help you understand the way men think!” he exclaimed. Secrets of those bearing a Y chromosome would be revealed, he promised; David Foster Wallace had explored the shadows of the psyche of his generation and had rendered them on the page in all of their dark, desperate beauty. As a woman who came of age alongside these men, who has a brother, a father, a lover, and friends, I was intrigued.
I read the book fervently and with a scrupulous eye, paying close attention to the nuances of thought, the paradoxes of desire, the calculating ways weakness is used as bait to seduce, the way some men are confident and conniving and yet also riddled by self-doubt and lack of self-knowledge. The men depicted within these stories form a compendium that maps the vicissitudes of the male mind, with an emphasis on the ages-old disjunction of the sexes, better known as romance. How my female friends and I had discussed these men in detail, but always with a quizzical incomprehension for the skittish guys who couldn’t commit, couldn’t connect, who were always so inconsistent in their desires.
This certainly isn’t to suggest Wallace’s work provides a fictional counterpart to Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Within Wallace’s stories we encounter blazing intelligence, linguistic mastery, and re-appropriation of forms. Who else can pull off a meditation on the effects of technological advancement on dating one hundred years in the future, composed in the form of an entry in a digital guide to grammatical usage?
In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace does an incomparable job of mapping the male experience, from the comic and shallow, to the distraught, the needy, and the self-absorbed. I suppose this is why I became weary upon first viewing the trailer for John Krasinski’s film adaptation, where a certain polish seemed certain to stifle Wallace’s complexity and where the laughs were slight and obvious. One should not judge a movie by its trailer, I suppose, but it’s often a reliable indicator upon which to base one’s expectations.
The film focuses solely on the series of brief interviews with unnamed men who are interspersed in sections throughout the book. Some interviews function as interludes, like Brief Interview #72, with a subject who just can’t get enough of women: “I love love love them…. Everything about them drives me wild.” Though this follows on the heels of B.I. # 59, a long disquisition on the nature of the subject’s Bewitched-inspired masturbation fantasies, in which the subject freezes time for everyone but himself and his fantasy lover, the time stopping leads to plaguing inconsistencies that eventually drive him mad. Wallace’s interviews swiftly bound between murky emotional depths and the unsightly.
This series of interviews seems like a good and obvious selection to adapt, as these stories take the form of dialogue that actually reads more like a monologue since the prompting questions are only represented by the letter Q. While this pared-down format seems more readily adaptable to dramatic purposes than a traditional story, it also poses a greater challenge in some ways. For one, the film must provide a setting and a guiding structure to unify these disparate interviews within a narrative.
Lamentably, John Krasinski’s film adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men attempts to carry the film entirely on the bearings Wallace’s work brings, and so it all falls flat. Krasinski’s screenplay structures the narrative around a graduate student named Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), who is researching how the feminist movement has affected the way men think about women. While conducting her research, Sara interviews various men who speak candidly about their relationships, romantic inclinations, and idiosyncrasies. This is the primary method Krasinski has devised to integrate Wallace’s monologues into the story. The interviewees sit in a stark room behind a desk as they enter the confessional mode while Sara remains silently (we assume) beyond the camera’s scope. The other “interviews” are woven into the dialogue of the ongoing scenes. At their best, these blend into the narrative, and at their worst, they stick out as unlikely disclosures that call attention to their ill-suited timing.
Sara is a character of Krasinski’s conception—although he learned after writing the screenplay that Wallace had envisioned the interviewer, much like Sara, as a female graduate student writing her dissertation on feminism and the male psyche. Her often tacit role aligns her with Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation (whose performance I admittedly believe was overrated). There are obvious reasons for taking this approach, including the interviewer’s silence within the short stories. However, there’s not enough to this rather tenuous narrative to counterbalance Sara’s reticence. There’s not enough of Sara, either. If Sara’s research project brings about the interviews, then her failed romance with Ryan (Subject #20), who is played by Krasinski, provides her emotional connection to the subject. But the depictions of her reminiscing about their cuddling in bed or participating in sing-alongs with friends never transcends schmaltz. The romance functions on the level of glib filler. It’s interesting to note that much of the cinematography rests on the actors’ faces, which provides a type of portraiture that parallels the portraits of characters the interviews provide. But this style becomes mundane, like much else in this film, and suggests that Krasinski relied too heavily on what he thought others would bring.
In some ways, this film comes off as an uneven mash-up. There’s a stark difference between the David Foster Wallace-inspired part of the script and the John Krasinski-authored part of the script, and this creates and awkward imbalance. Wallace’s words bring far more imagination, humor, and life to the film than what Krasinski contributes. And so the interviews behind the desk inherently work better because they remain most true to Wallace’s vision. There are some strong deliveries in spite of the film’s floundering, such Subject #42, who is ashamed of his father’s demure obedience as a bathroom attendant. But there’s also a dilution of complexities that makes many of the characters come off like types.
Wallace may have depicted types in his stories, but he also pushed the characters beyond the boundaries of stereotype so that they became nuanced individuals. By making these characters more palatable for the screen, they’ve lost their depth. Subject #59 is a southern black man who talks about the “smoothie” lover who likes to pleasure; there’s Subject #40 who uses his amputated arm to seduce women and hence gets “more pussy than a toilet seat”; and there’s also a silly montage of an emotionally attuned player who explains to a series of girlfriends he’s dumping why he can’t ever stay in a stable relationship while the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” plays in the background. The attempts at humor are ratcheted up, replacing the irony and the undercurrents of longing and despair which in the stories spoke to something deeper about the human condition.
When Krasinski attempts to weave the interviews into the narrative, they often fail miserably. The fictional world he has filmed isn’t dynamic, developed, or, really, interesting enough to support exchanges that prompt such charged monologues. When Daniel, Subject #46 (Dominic Cooper), repeatedly, and rather demurely, asks Sara to discuss his paper, he is persistent like a concerned student. But when they finally talk, he becomes challenging, aggressive, and enraged—another character entirely. In another scene, Sara’s professor, Professor Adams (Timothy Hutton), makes a disclosure that he only married his wife because she’d already had a child and still had a great body. Such an admission could have been riveting if Sara and her professor hadn’t had such a generic relationship to begin with. Given their functional back-and-forth until this point, the disclosure seems conspicuously misplaced.
Ryan also makes an ill-suited disclosure. No more than a handful of lines is exchanged between him and Sara before Sara inquires why he left her. We had seen him at a piano (twice), we had seen them cuddling in bed (many times), and we had seen him cowering and uneasy in her presence after the break-up. He didn’t have much of a personality until he posed an answer in the form of an implausible and indulgent monologue. It seems that the understated is supposed to emphasize Wallace’s rhetorical flourish, and yet it only calls attention to the inconsistencies in the characters and in the screenplay. Wallace’s work is just too demanding for the rather airy and contrived narrative that has been constructed to support it.
One only need watch Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation to appreciate the struggle a writer goes through to adapt a book into a screenplay. It seems apparent that Krasinski took on too much in this, his first film, by wearing the hat of director, screenwriter, and actor. If only a fool hires himself as his lawyer, perhaps the same could be said of a screenwriter who acts as his own director, at least when making his first film and it’s an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s work. Krasinski states that he first encountered Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in college, when he participated in a staged reading. This experience inspired him to become an actor. A fitting tidbit of information considering that the best parts of Krasinski’s film are the character monologues, a success speaking more to the strength of Wallace’s work than to the film’s merits. I may find fault with much of what Krasinski does in this film, but the one aspect I cannot find fault with is his passion. And in this sense, Krasinski, much like my boyfriend, was madly inspired after reading David Foster Wallace’s work. My advice? Stick with the book.
Images in order of appearance:
John Krasinski on set
Julianne Nicholson (as Sara)
Julianne Nicholson and Timothy Hutton (as Professor Adams, Subject #30)