“What does the modern woman really want?”
Claims have been proffered by everyone from Plato to the editors of Playboy, but as of yet the question remains unanswered.
Men’s obsession with the enigma drives “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” a film adaptation of the short story collection by David Foster Wallace, directed by John Krasinski (“The Office”). To be honest, it takes real genius — and a healthy dose of egoism — to pursue the topic. Who would have thought it of the adorable TV star?
In the film, the question of women’s desires is the nucleus of a research project directed by Sarah Quinn (Julianne Nicholson) intended to study the effects of feminism on the male psyche. Prior to the movie’s start, she realizes that studying women is useless and begins to interview men instead. Enter hideousness.
Boldly following Wallace into this quagmire, Krasinski wrote, directed and acted in the movie. The film adaptation was no small undertaking — the collection of stories is a convoluted, bizarre, but absolutely brilliant maze that peers into characters’ inner selves. So how to project it onto the screen?
The actor-turned-director, confident in his adaptation of “Brief Interviews,” was at the New York City premier, glowing like a parent after a piano recital. He hardly waited for the credits to roll before expounding upon his film.
“The movie is all about perspective,” Krasinski illuminates, “and I think that’s what David Foster Wallace was so incredibly good at doing.” Perspective was indeed a powerful element of the film, particularly in the drawn-out interviews. He believes that “the longer you stay on [the interviewees] the more they unravel, that’s the reality. If you let us talk for a long enough time, we’ll be the ones to shoot ourselves in the foot — you don’t have to keep asking questions. That was what I was trying to do here, to try and make it as awkward as it was for them if they were being asked questions, to not respond and just let them keep talking.”
The film begins with an awkwardly fidgeting, middle-aged man seated in front of a microphone. He begins describing a recurring problem he has — at the moment of sexual climax he shouts “Victory for the forces of Democratic freedom!,” a turnoff for most women, he’s discovered. Toward the end of the film, we see Subject #14 (Ben Shenkman) later in his interview, gushing about how each woman’s response to his uncontrollable exclamations impacts him, how he wishes they wouldn’t pretend they don’t care.
This is essentially Krasinski’s (and originally Wallace’s) vision: to elucidate men’s intimate emotional identities through the context of (often raunchy) monologues about passion.
Each man is allowed to speak entirely unprompted by Sarah, and through his speech, begins to unravel, revealing insecurities, fantasies and “hideousness.” Krasinski related Wallace’s explanation of “trying to write a book about a character who you never see or hear, but because of everyone around her you figure out who she is.” Wallace ultimately called the collection a “failed experiment.”
Not so in Krasinski’s eyes. The film “is based on a brilliant work by one of the greatest authors of our time. So it was really a special thing for me — this was something that just needed to be done.”
It was his passion for the stories that drove him to adapt prose to film. “I read it 100 times, and things just started coming into place. It’s like … [frustrated sigh] someone’s going to call me out, like ‘He’s comparing it to Shakespeare!’ but it’s true that all good writing that can be performed, the best of the best caliber, whether it’s a screenplay, play or this — good writing will have all the answers within it.”
But he wasn’t on his own. Early on, at least, he had the best help he could possibly find — that of Wallace himself. Krasinski’s anecdotes about the deceased author were nuggets of gold to fans in the IFC audience. “One of the greatest moments of this whole process was that I got to speak with David on the phone — he called to give me his blessing. He said, ‘I want to talk about the screenplay, because I’m one of those writers where once I’ve written something, it’s on the shelf, because that’s where books belong, so hearing that it’s going to have a second life is kind of weird. It’s surreal.’ And I totally understood that. But then he, through our conversation, started to talk about the process, and said, ‘Why don’t I tell you what the book’s about?’ … At that point we were three weeks away from shooting, so I basically told him what we were doing and he said that was exactly what he was going for in the book. It was pretty incredible. And again, I do not chalk that up to me being some genius … even though I am! … But to know that you’re on the trail of something you admire so much, and to know that you might be close to figuring out a fraction of it was awesome.” Is the film Krasinski’s own creative, Hollywood version of literature analysis?
A coherent drive, in fact, is exactly what’s missing — the film is so disjointed that it’s difficult to distill an overarching meaning. Yet it was very well received by the audience at IFC — maybe it was the film’s indie flavor, or just Krasinski’s infectious enthusiasm. His vision made his “passion project” a reality, and his elation, regardless of its success, makes it worthwhile.