“Everything I write ends up being about loneliness,” said the late writer David Foster Wallace in a 1999 interview on the radio show “Bookworm.” In that conversation, Wallace was trying to get at the core of his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a four-part short story he wrote as a series of monologues, which, in turn, are presented as a transcription of interviews that an unnamed woman conducted with dozens of men. In a dizzying whirl of language, Wallace’s fictional men explain how they feel about the women they’ve loved or, more often than not, have failed to love.
The 29-year-old actor John Krasinski reports that participating in a staged reading of Wallace’s story while a Brown University student inspired him to pursue acting as a profession. In the years since, as he rose to fame in The Office, he has been developing the stories as a feature, which he would write and direct. The resulting film has clearly been made with a deep reverence for Wallace, who was surely the most gifted writer of his generation, and who took his own life one year ago this month, at age 46. All of which makes it even more painful to say that, as a film, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a disaster.
In his crazily ambitious adaptation, Krasinski has brought to life the female interviewer, who is invisible in Wallace’s stories. On-screen, she has become Sara (Julianne Nicholson), a New York grad student who asks the men around her to speak about their relationships with women. At first, the talks take place in a bunker-like room, with the men sitting at a table in front of an ugly concrete wall. Krasinski begins with Subject #14 (Ben Shenkman), who has a goofy sexual problem. He is followed by one other (a funny Michael Cerveris as a blue-collar worker with performance issues), and then, as if he can’t stand the idea of staring at that bleak gray wall for the length of a film (an 80-minute one, at that), Krasinski sends Sara out into the world, where men at restaurants, parties, and theaters begin telling their stories, sometimes to her face, sometimes not.
The effect is distractingly theatrical—and confusing. Sara leaves her apartment and passes a man (Will Arnett) in the hallway, who is delivering a monologue about abandonment through the closed door of his girlfriend’s apartment. That’s a clever enough idea on paper, perhaps, but the setup ends up undercutting the message—his words don’t land. Later, in a coffeehouse, Sara listens from two tables away as a businessman (Christopher Meloni) tells his friend (Denis O’Hare) about an odd, Cheever-esque encounter he had with a newly jilted, hysterically crying woman in an airport. Ever in search of a way to open up the film, Krasinski cuts away to a poorly executed flashback of the encounter, set to Meloni’s voiceover. Again, excess staging overwhelms content, and all is lost.
It’s easy to see why actors would be drawn to Wallace’s Hideous Men monologues: They’re funny, profane, often scarily intense, and, at all times, deeply emotional. Yet, Wallace was not writing a play. He was writing fiction. For the page. And so the plot specifics of each man’s story—the who, what, and where—are secondary to the clutter of language with which the men surround their testimony. Wallace used language—often ornately academic—as a kind of protective padding for his interviewees, and the reader, at his own pace, must dig deep to find the essential truths.
Filmmakers, even great ones, are always battling the clock, a dilemma that left Krasinski little choice but to cut each monologue down to its core events. The stilted storytelling that results often rings false, and in the end, the monologues—delivered by some very good actors (Timothy Hutton, Bobby Cannavale, Josh Charles), who come across as first-year theater students acting out scenes from their favorite novels—don’t add up to much. If Krasinski had an overarching theme in mind—be it the loneliness that Wallace spoke of, or something else—we’re not getting it. And whatever it was about Hideous Men that so deeply affected Krasinski the college student has been lost in translation.