I’ve read perhaps five times the number of plays I’ve seen, a ratio that skews horribly the way one approaches drama. Often people say that plays are meant to be seen and not read, but while begging the question then why they are published and sold to the mass market, it is a valid point. Several playwrights that have garnered heavy acclaim, like Sam Shepard and the late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, were ones I didn’t care for all that much upon first reading them. It was only when seeing their works brought to life that the power of their drama came alive for me, and the limitations on merely reading a play were forever etched in my mind.
One could make a very similar comparison to John Krasinski’s new film, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and its source material, the stories of David Foster Wallace. Though he takes some creative liberties with the material, which we’ll explore in a moment, he essentially just produces dramatic readings from the text and films them, sometimes in a straightforward manner and sometimes not, creating a power within these stories that I didn’t feel the first time I read them almost ten years ago.
Wallace’s stories contained long interviews with men which basically amounted to monologues as the interviewers dialogue was excised and replaced solely with the letter ‘Q’ in order to indicate that something had been said. Apparently and experiment to write a narrative in which the main character is neither seen nor mentioned, Krasinski takes this idea and brings the interviewer to life as Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a graduate student who attempting to examine the impact of feminism, and to get over a messy breakup, by recording the desires and fears of men.
The film has received its share of negative reviews, and in a way I see where this is coming from. What basically amounts to a loosely collected series of monologues, one can sometimes feel that they are watching a college’s theater review rather than a cinematic narrative. But as all monologues can be judged on the strength of their actors, Krasinski has done well to cast the film with a powerhouse ranging from the comedic likes of Will Arnett and Will Forte to a very good performance by Dominic Cooper. But what really engaged me was the way that certain scenes were filmed, the way certain stories were told, in a more effective way than was possible for Wallace when he was writing on the page. Such adaptations to the strength of the medium is always and engaging topic for me, and I’d like to discuss just two here.
In one delightful sequence, Josh Charles presents the exact same speech five times to different women in order to break up with them. Krasinski cuts from scene to scene throughout the unbroken monologue, showing Charles and the different women in different locations without breaking the narration. It’s incredible and hilarious, and example of hideous behavior for sure, but one that is rendered so effectively in this medium as opposed to recitation in an interview which is what one would have gotten by just filming the page being read.
The second scene involves an overheard conversation between two men, one played by Law and Order: SVU actor Christopher Meloni. Meloni’s character relates a scene he witnessed when getting off an airplane and seeing a woman in a hysterical breakdown over the failure of her lover to return from breaking up with his girlfriend. Krasinski begins in the coffee shop where Sara overhears the conversation, but Meloni’s character relates the story, the scene shifts to the airport and again we have unbroken narration as we witness what happened. Meloni is in the scene, but is telling it to his friend at the same time; thus, when he speaks to the woman in his story, he actually turns to her and speaks. Yet he speaks of many things he wasn’t witness for, like the lead up for the trip that the boyfriend was making to break off his other relationship, and we see that happening, but by detaching from that coffeehouse and showing us the story, we no longer are watching Sara overhear a story with hideous actions, but we lose the mediation as we become the ones overhearing the exchange. In both of these cases, Krasinski adapts the verbatim narration in Wallace’s stories to make them successful in the medium of film, a perfect example of how such a transition can work.
This isn’t to say that I found the movie to be a great one, though the performances were stellar. The tone of the different men are sometimes hard to reconcile with the tone of Krasinski’s overall narrative. For example, there is a powerful scene in which Frankie Faison tells Sara about his father who worked for years as a bathroom attendant and is joined in the scene within the bathroom by his father as a much younger man. Their interaction, sort of a dual-monologue if one will forgive the contradiction in terms, is easily one of the most stirring performances in the film. But this jibes poorly with the protestations of Will Forte on how he loves everything about all women.
Everyone knows Krasinski for his role as Jim Halpert on the US version of The Office, and while it may be hard for some to see why he is being considered for the role of Captain America, watching his dramatic turn here makes the role seem more plausible. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is not a great film by any means, but it is a film worth your time, both for aspects of its narrative and for the insight into the way some men think. It might not be all that different from what a man close to you thinks himself.