Most of us have loved a book passionately. There are at least five or ten that I have read more than twice, and inevitably I end up considering how it might adapt to film. And for all the things that might work, and for all the things that certainly wouldn’t, the two elements that most often keep a book from serious consideration for adaptation are length and structure. Books don’t work on a timeline, nor are they constrained by acts. Regardless of the merits of either genre, the gap between the two feels evident here, as Brief Interviews with Hideous Men seems often confused and unsure of its legs as a motion picture.
Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson) is a graduate student, studying the effects of feminism on subsequent generations of men. These hideous men, interviewed in a chilly, cramped basement, seem mostly aware of their shortcomings and often proud of them. Quinn plays a minor role in each interview, asking the occasional leading question but mostly playing witness to villains laid bare. As the male subjects of the study reveal their natures, they tend to seem less monstrous and more adolescent. Mostly these men are extremely shallow and self-centered, or pitiful and whiny, and the title ends up feeling a bit exaggerated. With each interaction we learn more about Sara’s past, and the awful breakup from which she’s incapable of recovering. To her mind, all these men are just miserable reminders of the one who broke her heart so masterfully and the result is a woman whose severe victimization keeps her thoroughly frigid and distanced by judgment. Perhaps it goes without saying, but Sara Quinn is not particularly likeable.
John Krasinski had never written or directed anything before helming this project. The mere fact that he completed the project is impressive, and the film certainly has moments that suggest a guy with some potential, but overall this feels like the director’s first time behind the camera. The experimentation with time is more confusing than intriguing, lacking the precision necessary to that type of toying around. The script too, seems a bit untidy. Towards the middle, when two of the three black actors in the piece come together for a short scene wallowing in father/son issues, the typical Foster Wallace eloquence becomes maddening and the scene becomes far too self-indulgent for its own good. In fact, much of the film could be called self-indulgent. Krasinski likes to take big moments of revelation and cut them short, leaving us hanging. At first this is mildly interesting, but it soon grows tiresome. In general there are far too many moments where an assertion is made and than just as quickly backtracked. This script seems to reinforce the notion that artistic license isn’t always the best game plan.
I’d like to take a moment to take issue with an element that is applicable to this movie, but in the grander scheme of Hollywood productions needs desperately to be remedied. Death Cab for Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard makes an appearance as one of Sara’s friends and subjects, and the performance is, in a word, terrible. Every moment of screen time Gibbard sucks up feels like an audition tape for some undergrad short film project. There’s nothing overtly offensive about it except that it’s just purely bad acting. Now, this is not Ben Gibbard’s fault; dude spends his days writing music, not going to acting class. This one is on Krasinski. Even a first time Director should have known better than to bring in a guy with no ability and give him a monologue. But what bothers me more than this singular performance is how often this seems to happen. The world of “art” is inevitably a melting pot, with all the big names attending all the big parties. I’m sure Gibbard and Krasinski are friendly, and John thought Ben would “just be perfect” for this part, and there ya go. This is sloppiness, plain and simple. You do your entire film a disservice by making apparent the fact that certain parts are insignificant enough to just throw them at a buddy. Further, I’m incapable of seeing the known quantity of a non-actor onscreen, and watching for anything other than signs of bad acting. I’m sure Krasinski has his reasons, but they don’t really matter, because all we end up getting are a few dreadful moments in a movie that seems to have enough trouble just treading water.
Mostly, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men feels precisely like what it is: a labor of love constructed by a guy with lots of famous friends. John Krasinski constructs the whole with the confidence of someone whose read and reread and gone over it all in his head a hundred times. But the man is an actor, and there’s no escaping the evidence that this is his first attempt at writing, his first attempt at directing. There’s something tangible missing from the final product. While the heft of the source material lends the film inevitable glimpses at something bigger and brighter, the way the script plays with it’s source keeps it from maintaining what’s visceral about the story. There’s too much about the main character we don’t care about, and not enough development otherwise. There’s too much indulgent dialogue that feels never ending but doesn’t seem to go anywhere. For whatever is intended, the result feels too clumsy to be taken as anything other than a mediocre, albeit heartfelt first attempt at making a film.