John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski has said in real-life interviews that although he wanted to get an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men on the screen, he didn’t want to write it or direct it. He wasn’t kidding. Krasinski treats the camera like an elderly relative who should only be moved to prevent bedsores, and it’s been awhile since I’ve read DFW’s BIWHM, but I’m guessing less than 10 minutes of the movie is anything but verbatim. These aren’t necessarily complaints.
For the most part, Krasinski’s smart enough to relate the story — originally a series of monologues thematically linking an otherwise unrelated short-story collection — as a series of monologues providing thematic weight to the slightest hint of a film plot.
Sara Quinn (Nicholson) is a grad student collecting those interviews in order to figure out why dreamy alpha-boy-next-door Krasinski (IDed here as Subject #20) left her. Aside from the few non-canon Quinn scenes, what follows is practically The Penis Monologues with a twist (sorry for that image): Men, as Wallace saw them, are mostly disgusting and insane. The characters presented in these impossibly candid monologues are grotesques, but in the Sherwood Anderson sense — made pathetic by weakness and desire, but not deplorable for any quality we haven’t already hated, in some form, in ourselves.
Credit Wallace’s otherworldly dialogue for conveying almost all of this from the get-go, but if BIWHM ever finds itself in a job interview, Krasinski’s unwillingness to stray too far from the text is the film’s greatest strength and weakness. Great because he has the good sense not to screw around with Wallace’s most evocative, lyrical passages — an exchange between two waiters reaches Beckett’s rapid-fire absurdity, and a duet describing a bathroom attendant’s quiet, hellish existence is about as close as we’ll ever see to modern-English Shakespeare, though Krasinski not-quite successfully splits a single character’s lines between two actors, a trick he repeats and multiplies with diminishing returns throughout.
The downside is that the film feels about as limited as a literal interpretation of Waiting for Godot or King Lear, and Krasinski’s non-direction only furthers the stage-play feel. Ironically, Krasinski’s rare cuts and embellishments are all drastic and flashy— splitting single monologues up among several characters in different settings, having single characters deliver continuous speeches across several situations — but rarely effective, and the choice to introduce a few of the strangest interview subjects as actual characters in Quinn’s narrative is just distracting.
The film’s most powerful moments stick closest to the book’s original premise — men verbosely relating unspeakable thoughts and emotions for an unseen interviewer. Krasinski, whether he wants to be graded or not, does show some promising ambition as a director and a rare understanding of some truly difficult material, and though Nicholson’s role often feels superfluous, her perspective — after multiple interviews she seems as understandably disenchanted with the masculine psyche as a coroner might with the human body — gives the film an added humanity that’s missing but not required from the book. As a filmmaker, Krasinski largely comes off as a promising student with some impressive connections, but BIWHM proves Wallace would’ve made one hell of a playwright. For still-distraught DFW fans and actors (sorry, ladies — everything brilliant here oozes testosterone) in search of eye-popping monologues this is a must-see.
— Jeremy Martin
Available through Independent Film Channel’s video-on-demand feature through December 15