Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hideous Men...blah, blah, blah...

It would be tempting to spend a lot of time discussing Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but the movie doesn't really deserve it. It is a valid attempt at a movie based on an infinitely more interesting piece of literature, but at the end of the day it doesn't really feel like a movie. Literature recited on film? Yes. A filmed play? Sure. A movie? Not so much.

Based on the late David Foster Wallace's 1999 book of short stories, the film is an ambitious first-time directorial effort by The Office's John Krasinski, who clearly displays intelligence but fails to devise a legitimate strategy for turning a collection of short stories into anything other than filmed prose. There is an inherent glass ceiling with films that merely compile vignettes -- individual sections can be great, but the entire piece can never fully sing as a great whole. Krasinski tries to work a half-assed narrative around his vignettes, but the effort is transparently thin and becomes distracting.

The conceit is promising enough: center the film on a woman who conducts the titular "interviews" as part of her doctoral thesis on exploring male views on sexuality and relationships. Julianne Nicholson plays the woman, Sara, who enters her project not just with curiosity, but with pain; she is coming off a messy break-up from a cheating boyfriend (played by Krasinski himself) and means to find some psychological solace in her studies. Of course, the intent is for the audience to discover something about Sara in the midst of finding out the obvious heinous shit about all these men, but Krasinski the filmmaker is a little too in love with Wallace's tome to stay far enough away from it to follow through on his own narrative off-shoots.

Oftentimes the first-time writer-director allows long soliloquies to play out again and again, thinking that inserting some jump cuts between sentiments will be enough visual stimulus to remind us that "this is a movie," but his efforts are more irksome than anything else. The use of jump-cuts to different moments in an interview or conversation can be used to great effect if there is a point and purpose behind the strategy, but after a while it seems like Krasinski settles into a rut in which he just inserts his cuts at random, just because the screen would seem too static without them. In addition, would-be creative flourishes like having conversations relayed while the events being discussed play out on the screen in a self-reflexive manner come across as desperate distractions rather than naturally inventive techniques.

I said all this to the wife, but of course she came back with, "enough about how the film fails...what did you think of the ideas?" And for the ideas, I say...they are what they are. They probably come across as more profound in the text of Wallace's book, where they feel more organic, and where the fits and starts of short stories make more sense. The problem with the film's ideas are that they aren't really true ideas at all, but simply interviews with jerks, as the title implies. "Aren't men terrible?" the film seems to be saying. But I already knew that. Give me something a little more interesting about men being terrible. Krasinski attempts to insert some external ideas in the form of a two-man Greek Chorus, who address the camera directly and wax poetic about women while Sara attempts to explore men. The equalizing strategy doesn't work because it turns Sara, the potentially-interesting central character, into a subject to be studied rather than a living, breathing being. Oftentimes she is just as much a subject to be studied as the "hideous men" being interviewed, which is cold and off-putting even if it is not intended to be.

Watching Krasinski on The Office, his intelligence is obvious. He is witty and human and endlessly engaging. That potential exists for his future as a writer and director, but Brief Interviews with Hideous Men offers little more than the sassy literalness of its title.

No comments: