by Brendan Peterson Film Horizon Line

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — John Krasinski

October 5, 2009

Based on the writings of the late David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a movie for people who like to listen to books on tape. There’s nothing cinematic or visually engaging about this film, and in fact, there’s no real story or coherent narrative thrust of any kind. There’s just a lot of talking. People sit and talk, stand and talk, and, sometimes, even walk and talk. The good news is that Wallace was a captivating writer who created engaging characters with unique insights, so the words being spoken are often interesting. But there’s nothing else to see here, folks.

The film focuses on the academic pursuits of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a graduate student who wants to know what men really want; so she sits them down, puts a microphone in their face, and asks questions. The resulting interviews are the basis of the film. The interviewees and supporting players are portrayed by a wide range of excellent character actors, including: Timothy Hutton, Christopher Meloni, Denis O’Hare, Ben Shenkman, Michael Cerveris, and Bobby Cannavale. Most of the time, the interviews themselves take off into a dramatization of the stories being told. As we watch these men interact with the world and the women in their lives, one message comes through loud and clear: men are assholes. Fair enough. But, really, is that all you’ve got? Back in 1997, Neil LaBute made a film called In the Company of Men that covered this “theme” in a much more interesting way — y’know, with a story and interesting pictures and stuff like that.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is the directorial debut of John Krasinski, who you might know as Jim from the TV show The Office. He also stars in the film as Sara’s love interest. It’s clear that this is a labor of love, and good for him. But it’s also clear that he’s still learning how to make a movie: every once in a while, the action is framed in an appealing way, and the performances are strong, but there just isn’t enough happening to generate interest from one scene to the next. Krasinski uses a low-key jazz soundtrack to drum up the mood and, in this way, the lack of narrative structure can be seen as a choice. The filmmakers made a conscious decision to create a jazzy, just-let-it-happen, no-formal-structure type of movie. Unfortunately, that choice is boring in film form; maybe this would have made a good play. With its laid back tone and sexually charged material, you get the sense that Krasinski was going for a sex lies and videotape vibe, but without the visual innovation or narrative cohesion of that great film, we are left with a random series of scenes that never add up.

It doesn’t help that our protagonist, Sara, has no personality whatsoever, and is played with zombie-like indifference by Nicholson. Again, there’s the sense that this was a “choice” by the filmmakers — she’s supposed to be a blank slate, an objective observer of these crazy men-folk. But, in most cases, blank slates don’t translate well in film, and that’s certainly the case here. Occasionally, the film does ask intriguing questions: after a character’s brutally honest tirade about what he wants from life, and specifically from women, he asks the interviewer, “Does the truth always sound shallow?” An interesting query, to be sure. Unfortunately, the truth about Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is that it’s dressed to the nines with engaging ideas and good intentions, but it simply has nowhere to go.