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The Trouble with Adapting David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews” for the Big Screen

It has been a little over a year since the ineffable David Foster Wallace left us for the hereafter. Ululate if you must. Of course, his spirit lives on through his ruminative, pomo oeuvre — death, as e.e. cummings poeticized, is “no parenthesis.” In fact, the dark, surging, circumlocutory monologues in Wallace’s 1999 short-story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, inspired John Krasinski (yes, he of The Office stardom) to adapt them for his behind-the-camera debut of the same name.

Much of the film’s winding dialogue is taken from the tome’s confessional and oft-despicable male ids, though obviously pared down and occasionally placed in a format outside of the sit-down interview (i.e. dinner parties). Alas, the dense, ambitious translation hews too closely to the source’s hopscotch style; it’s compelling here and there with flashes of aha! honesty, but it mostly comes off as head-scratching.

When Interviews was first released, Krasinski was still a theater student at Brown. While there, he partook in a staged reading — according to the actor, this performance sold him on his future métier. His chief edit to the material turns its “offscreen” interrogator into Sara (Julianne Nicholson), a recently-dumped graduate student who seeks to learn more about the male species and their impulses, even declaring that she doesn’t think that “the truth about men can be found in a book.” Fair enough. She conducts numerous tell-all interviews with men about their dealings with the opposite sex, or — in line with the academic milieu of the film — attempts to lay bare the impact of the feminist movement on today’s male. In abstract, an interesting way to use Wallace’s lines as “evidence;” in practice, the daring is all head and little heart.

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Like lab samples, the interviewees themselves are identified by subject numbers. Indeed, the cell in which they’re interrogated is more concrete dungeon than ivory tower. Or, if you will, an outsized petri dish to observe variation and behavior: the first dude — much to his chagrin — ejaculates “Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!” during his climactic flourish; the next uses his deformed limb to guilt-trip women into bed; yet another splits with five different women using the same excuse, like some sort of customer service asshole; and the un-saintly keep marching in for diminishing returns. Spaced out with jump cuts, we don’t hear the questions posed during these interviews, although they’re encoded in the lengthy, self-justifying responses, some that hint at those typical Wallace motifs of alienation and desperation. Yet, with the static camera, we’re also too aware of the “act” being caught, as if each man was auditioning for a theatrical role as Stanley Kowalski by baring their sexual hang-ups.

Once in the outside world — at the aforementioned dinner parties, the café, even at home — Sara’s grandiose “What is Man?” dossier takes in conversational encounters with a student fixated on his grisly essay thesis (Dominic Cooper), her thoughtful professor/mentor (Timothy Hutton), and, at long last, her snide ex-boyfriend (Krasinski). Even overheard exchanges, such as a switchback tale about an airport pick-up being discussed by Christopher Meloni and Denis O’Hare, take on heightened significance to her.

Krasinski frees Wallace’s prose from its undisclosed setting with these apt and clever relocations, but he’s much less successful with the two-headed Greek chorus (Max Minghella and Lou Taylor Pucci) that swaggers about their scenes, blathering about female desires for naught. At that, the use of recognizable faces — like Will Arnett and Ben Gibbard — allows for a few guffaws, but detracts from anything incisive. But the core problem is the sad-eyed Sara: invented by the filmmaker to be the narrative’s hub and the raison d’être for the no-prisoners investigation of this XY-psyche (the book left the impetus open-ended), she remains too half-drawn (or withdrawn) a character, a red-headed placeholder rather than the flesh-and-blood protagonist needed to tie the brief, floating ideas and observations into a cohesive wallop. In the end, it has to be said that the truth of men can’t be found in this film either.

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