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Review: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

First, a little back story. As a dedicated fan of the late David Foster Wallace since way before I should have been (bought and tried tackling “Infinite Jest” for the first time at age 16), I’ve long hoped for the day that someone would be ambitious enough to bring his work to life visually. DFW wrote in a that was very vivid and clear in its imagery that it should easily translate to the big screen, but the dialogue (and specifically the vocabulary) and the thematic elements are so complex that much of his work doesn’t seem viable outside the printed word.

So I’ve gotta say I was a wee bit skeptical when I heard that A)”Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” was going to be the first DFW work to be adapted for film, and B) that it would be done by “Jim from The Office.” I certainly have nothing against John Krasinski as an actor (well…more on that later), but making your writer-director-producer debut by being the first to adapt a David Foster Wallace work is like trying to take the LSATs before passing high school English class. “BIHM” as written is essentially 23 short stories composed in part of dialogue and narratives taken from (fictional?) interviews with men in various different settings. There are no characters, per se, aside from the men being interviewed (the identity of the interviewer and the text of the questions is always omitted) and the “victims” detailed in their stories.

The book contains no central plotline or setting or other central non-thematic element binding all of the stories together. Suffice it to say, a rather ambitious project to bring to the big screen. Krasinski’s rather astute way of relating all of the “hideous men” to one another is to actually introduce the interviewer…in this case a thirty-ish Ph.D. (or perhaps Psy. D.) student portrayed somewhat underwhelmingly (on purpose) by Julianne Nicholson. Nicholson’s cold, clinically-detached Sara serves as a perfect blank screen for her subjects to project upon. Krasinski also introduces a point to all of the interviews: Sara’s quest to understand the opposite sex in a way that goes beyond “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” especially after a sour break-up. Some in DFW fanboy circles find that this cheapens the original story for the sake of making it more accessible to a wide audience. I choose to disagree…and I find that the film version actually makes the book a little more palatable by giving it some context (BIWHM is my least-favorite Wallace work).

Brilliant performances abound, and the film screens like a graduate level class on character-acting. Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard making his acting debut as a hipster friend/subject of Sara’s. Ben Shenkman (Damages, Law & Order) nailing the “Victory for the forces of Democratic Freedom” guy. Will Forte portraying the incredibly creepy Subject #72 in a way that only he could…and in a way that may make me unable to watch him in anything else ever. The underrated Josh Charles (Sports Night). Perhaps the most compelling part of the film is the volley between Subject #42 (Frankie Faison – “The Wire) and his father (Malcolm Goodwin).

The only drawback, really, was Krasinski himself. His monologue at the end (which really explains the whole movie) was a little too Gilmore-Girlsy, meaning that it seemed like he knew the big words and could recite them, but that he at times was doing only that without any real understanding of what he was saying. Sorta like how I passed high school Spanish.

All in all, I think the film was very solid, albeit a tad short at 80 minutes. Krasinski did an incredibly admirable job pulling off that which I didn’t think could be pulled off while being watchable by all but DFW fanboys. Not bad for a first outing. Now let’s see him tackle “Infinite Jest.” I’m thinking trilogy…

4/5 stars

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Still working on my review of Josh Ritter’s “So Runs The World Away,” which will probably be the album of the year. Lots of music related things coming up…

5/15 Pearl Jam in Hartford
5/17 Buzzcocks in Boston
5/18 New Black Keys
5/21 Josh Ritter in Boston
6/8 New Blitzen Trapper
6/15 New Gaslight Anthem

It’s gonna be a good summer!

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