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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

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I haven't read the David Foster Wallace book on which Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is based, but if writer/director/star John Krasinski's adaptation is any indication, it's not something I need in my life. These are the coldest, most out-of-touch eighty minutes I've spent with a film in quite awhile.

To be fair, maybe I'm the one who's out of touch. I like to think of myself as a decent man, and not so much a "guy"--a distinction that's followed me ever since Lili Taylor explained it in Say Anything. The cliche of the average male as an oversexed, unfaithful, uneducated louse has always rubbed me the wrong way. I don't know those people; the few encounters I've had with them didn't last long. For the most part, the men I know are respectful, good-hearted, and have a knowledge base that isn't limited to power tools or macho minutiae surrounding "the big game".

As you might imagine, most filmed depictions of men bug the crap out of me. According to the media, we're all barbarians, suave would-be date-rapists, incompetent nerds, or flamboyant pixies. So, when Netflix mentioned that I might enjoy* Interviews, I figured, "Hey, that Wallace guy was famous for being smart and interesting, maybe his take on the battle of the sexes is the relief I've been waiting for."

Not even close. Again, I'm judging the film, not the book, but there's a stale, academic quality to much of the dialogue that sounds like it was adapted from essays by Harvard-educated Vulcans--which brings me to the movie's protagonist, Sara (Julianne Nicholson). She's a very serious, hard-working college student working on a thesis project involving dozens of men--strangers and acquaintances--who download their innermost hatreds and fears into her hand-held recorder. Many of these confessions involve their terrible treatment of women, which the film serves up as cute, narrated vignettes.

I should've known I was in trouble when looking at the poster art. This may sound strange, but whenever you see the castmembers' names listed so prominently, odds are you're in for a stinker. All of the film's most recognizable actors are listed right down the middle, drawing attention away from the image underneath. This rule also applies to any movie whose poster boasts, "Featuring music by...", followed by what is essentially a non-clickable iTunes playlist.

Yes, Interviews features many well-known actors and some lesser-known "that guy" character actors; all stepping in, I'm sure, to support their friend, John, by infusing his little movie with five minutes of their big shticks. Will Arnett pops up as Sara's creepy neighbor who's constantly arguing with his woman through a locked door. Will Forte is a possibly closeted goofball who lists the reasons he "loves" women as if he's writing a minimum-word term paper. Christopher Meloni is a traveling salesman boasting about a vulnerable airport conquest. Krasinski has a small but significant role as Ryan, the cute and charming guy Sara meets at a cocktail party--who, of course, turns out to be an irredeemable creep.

Those of you who keep up with such things may notice that the actors I just mentioned star on NBC programs.** Indeed, Interviews feels very much like a vanity project that a group of drunk actors agreed to at the end of a corporate holiday party: "Hey, I've got this thing I'm working on about douchebags. You're awesome as that douchebag cop, and he's killer as that douchebag company-man. Wanna do this thing or what?"

Sorry, these things amuse me during long stretches of insulting, boring crap. I get that the movie's called "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men", but am I supposed to believe that all of Sara's sessions involved uncouth assholes? Or is it just that I'm being presented with the worst offenders because they fit the title? Is there an alternate-reality version in which she talks with men who don't cheat and don't create elaborate fictions to get into random girls' pants? Or would that just not be interesting enough to film?

It doesn't help that Sara's such a pill. She wears a sour expression throughout the entire movie; its only variants are sour-and-confused, sour-and-sad, and sour-and-bored. She laughs, I think, twice, at parties, but it plays like Klaatu trying to blend into a mixer before breaking the news about his planet-wrecking robot pal. I guess the idea is that she's been so screwed over by guys that she decides to turn her paper on modern feminism into a damning portrait of masculinity, but she exudes no sympathy--indeed, no personality--that suggests she ever had a heart to break. When Ryan confesses his (weirdly justified) affair, she stares blankly out the window and hardly notices the tears running down her cheeks; as if her body understands what it is to be devastated, but her mind hasn't reached that set of ones and zeroes in its assessment of their breakup.

Weirdly, towards the end, the movie dredges up about fifteen exceptional minutes that really wowed me. Frankie Faison plays Subject #42, an African-American who talks about his strained relationship with his father (Malcom Goodwin). Krasinski opens a portal between past and present through which Subject #42 rails against his dad, a put-upon men's room attendant who's served the ridiculously wealthy for decades. It's a bizarre indictment that speaks to race, class, and the subtle ways in which family defines personality.

On its heels is a montage of encounters between Sara and an eager student named Daniel (Dominic Cooper). The presentation is annoyingly precious in a way that the rest of the film is not, but I can see why Krasinski baked this narrative pretzel: like Subject #42's story, this one ends with a doozy of a revelation that completely re-shades the preceding events.

Interviews' last glimmer of hope comes right at the end, when  Ryan confesses his infidelity in a way that combines, guilt, introspection, and defiance in ways I didn't expect. Though it's hard to defend his actions, I at least understand why he did what he felt was necessary in a moment of weakness (hell, it may not even have been a moment of weakness). These three characters and their rich stories offer the kind of insight and honesty that feel like anomalies in Wallace/Krasinski's universe; they're completely out of step with the rest of the movie.

The film's greatest sin is that it plays like the millionth, tired volley in pop culture's bogus Mars/Venus wars. If real people honestly feel like understanding and/or appreciating the opposite sex is some gargantuan undertaking, some cosmic mystery whose unsolvability is an excuse for perpetuating flagrant generalities, then Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is probably an astute encapsulation of that struggle. More likely, though, it's just the art-house equivalent of Home Improvement, brought to you, in part, by NBC/Universal.

*This is the second time in as many days that Netflix has steered me wrong. Maybe it's not a fan of my reviews?

**Or did, at the time of the film's release.