In a series of taped conversations, Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson) records interviews with men, largely about their treatment and perception of women. She is a quiet woman, a university graduate who we’re told is something of a recluse. She seems in a constant state of misery.
The interviews with the various men reveal ugliness in their reaction to women. They’re largely filmed as man-sitting-across-from-the-table, though some are presented on screen as skit-like, while others are scenes of men conversing while we see Sara in the background. We see snippets of a relationship she’s shared with Ryan (John Krasinski, also director of the film), which seem to stand in contrast with the other male malignance presented in the film.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is not a successful film. It’s based on a series of short stories by David Foster Wallace, an author I’ve not read, but have heard significant praise for. One of the constant comments on his writing is that it’s largely unfilmable, and that’s certainly the case here.
The film is uneven. Many of the skits work on a visual-narrative sense, but offer little to no insight on the men who are speaking. Worse still, we’re offered no depth about their confessions. The overall conclusion to be drawn is “Geez, a lot of guys are assholes” but little more, and little explanation beyond the fact that they are inherently assholic. Their revelations offer little to grasp beyond that sentiment, and in centring the narrative of the film on Sara, the confessions and interviews are undone by never relating back to her, and to what she’s learning over the course of her study.
Krasinski is clearly a fan of the source material, and the dialogue is clearly lifted from the page in large sections (itself a problem – prose and literary dialogue do not necessarily translate into compelling dialogue on screen) but in trying to craft these into a feature film with his own signature on it, the final product feels undercooked; a victim of respecting someone else’s work while making it your own, and failing to give it a proper identity either way.
Julianne Nicholson gives it her all as Sara Quinn, though she’s given so little to work with that the character is left bland and unengaging. Her motivation behind the interviews, that Ryan cheated on her and she’s struggling to understand why, is too little information given too late, and not present as a motivation in the earlier film.
Some of the film works well, but as disparate moments to a cohesive whole.
Frankie Faison appears as a man whose monologue is not about women, but about his rage, disgust and pity at his father’s life long career as a bathroom attendant. This is the film’s most confidently filmed and presented scene, with Faison’s character, a grown man, confronting his father as a younger man in the bathroom he attends. But the central issue is one of race relations and family history as opposed to his perception of women – which would be more than appropriate if the film were more interested in definitions and concepts of masculinity, but feels out of place in a film made solely of men’s treatment of women, not least of all when it’s revealed that Sara’s intention is to specifically discuss men’s reactions to the feminist movement.
Christopher Meloni turns up to deliver a monologue about a woman who he met in an airport lounge while his obsequious friend interrupts by missing the point. This scene feels like a video response to the ruthless misogyny of In the Company of Men, and while capably performed offers little to no insight beyond that same “men are often assholes” motif that pervades the rest of the film. The tone of the vignette is more assured and confident than much of the film, but its lack of depth renders it as another shallow entry in a cavalcade of shallowness.
Dominic Cooper appears as a student of Sara’s, who delivers a rant at her about a paper she marked poorly, claiming several variations of victimhood to try and defend his grade – whether he’s meant to be genuine in his revelations or simply a vicious manipulator is left open to interpretation, but its impact on Sara is never made clear.
And this is the film’s biggest problem: Sara is a device, not a character. It makes logical sense that these men would be interviewed by someone, and for some larger purpose (apparently in the short stories, the narrator is unnamed and little information provided), but there is no relevance to what they say, beyond confessing to the audience. Sara’s questions are never revealed, so we don’t know what prompts these men to confess what they do, and keeping the impetus behind it a secret until the final scene of the film is not so much a twist as it is information that would have been more useful at the film’s outset.
As a showcase for the actors, the film is fine. Whether you find the men reprehensible as intended, or shallow ciphers of characters that could have been more fleshed out is up to you. I won’t disagree that there are many men who are assholes in the world, but for the film to present it as a look into the deeper parts of the male psyche is condescending, given how little it actually does that. And despite its flaws, the film is engaging enough to hold your interest, and John Krasinski does show some promise as a director with some visual flair, if only he can get a better handle on how to put his own identity into the film.
It’s a film that tries hard and thinks it’s doing an insightful thing, but misses both marks and falls short. It’s worth watching for the “actor’s showcase” moments, and some innovative (though not wholly groundbreaking) ways of presenting the story on film, but as an overall film, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is indeed brief, shallow, and largely forgettable.