Possessing an uncanny ability to convey demented comedy and heart-rending drama, often in the same breath, the late David Foster Wallace — novelist (Infinite Jest), essayist (Consider the Lobster), short-fiction author (Oblivion) — was a postmodern American literary titan of the first degree. It seemed no filmmaker alive had half the brain — or half the balls — to adapt Wallace for the silver screen. Nobody even wanted to attempt an adaptation. And so, for over 20 years of Wallace’s famed career, there were none. Perhaps Wallace was even … unfilmable?
Then came word that John Krasinski, “Jim from The Office,” had written, directed, and starred in a film adaptation of one of Wallace’s greatest works, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Krasinski was an actor — a good one, but ultimately all his CV had to show was a regular gig on an NBC sitcom, to say nothing of writing, to say nothing of directing. Who was Jim from The Office to dare to adapt David Foster f**king Wallace?
Well, he did. And, despite what some critics have said, Jim from The Office mightily succeeded. Displaying authorial certitude and skill remarkable in a film, let alone a film debut, as both director and screenwriter, Krasinski takes Wallace’s series of monologues about the secret inner-lives of “hideous men” in modern America and turns it into something amazing: a real film, a real work of dark art.
Perhaps Krasinski’s most significant achievement in this masterpiece begins with his work as a screenwriter: evidently, Krasinski knew not to break what wasn’t broken about the book. Most important of all, Wallace’s language — so many sentences like black diamonds strung together — is preserved. It’s not that Krasinski is too precious with Wallace — presenting men talking continuously while sitting in bars or where-have-you — for then, he would have failed. Instead, Krasinski manages to edit Wallace down into a manageable if still magnificent beast, and blast away the fourth wall in order to really get inside the minds of these preening, pretentious peacocks.
And speaking of the fourth wall: Krasinski follows the single-most important tenet in screenwriting, and perhaps in storytelling of any medium: Form should reflect content. Using every postmodern directing strategy in the book (multiple locations for a single action, characters speaking directly to camera, nonlinear presentation of minimal “plot,” among others), Krasinski directs like a preening, pretentious peacock. But what many critics have missed is that he’s doing so on purpose, with the same sense of irony that Wallace so essentially imbued to his characters. Sometimes you can simply laugh at these guys, but the act of laughing is never simple with Wallace: You’re laughing at something perverse in yourself, at something perverse in our contemporary McCulture, at something perverse in humanity over all.
If you question the tone, just notice the MTV-style editing. Fast enough for ya? After all, the title is Brief Interviews, isn’t it? But wait, they’re not really brief, though, are they? These are some seriously long-winded S.O.B.’s, aren’t they? It seems that however long one of these men keeps his mouth open — for two seconds or five minutes — it is too long. It’s like squirming and screaming, “Shut up! Keep talking!” These brief interviews dramatize what happens when every man is the loquacious idiot Polonius from Hamlet who contributed to our culture the cherished, “Brevity is the soul of wit” … in a speech chockablock full of bad advice that was itself ridiculously long. On the one hand, you want Polonius to shut up and get off the stage, but on the other hand, you’re listening to William Shakespeare.
By preserving Wallace’s language (and Wallace’s length of language), Krasinksi knows he’s preserving Wallace’s theme. A healthy side-benefit is that the film actually feels fast (80 minutes!), that it careens madly along to its sinister conclusion, that it is over before you know it began — that it finishes prematurely, we might even say. (Ugh! … Was it good for you?)
Not to worry: It’s not an-all boys show. Did I mention the main character is a woman, an attractive young graduate student named Sara (Julianne Nicholson)? She’s in practically every scene? Oh, and that Sara keeps her mouth shut most of the time? As screenwriters, we’re so trained that characterization comes through action and through dialogue. But what happens when your main character chooses not to say anything? Not to do anything? We don’t dislike her. We don’t like her, either. We don’t know her. We don’t ask to know her. And that’s part of the point. Really, Sara is a sort of ink-blot protagonist, a vicar for the audience. She’s irrefutably a flat character, and that’s on purpose, in order to provide the strongest contrast to her well-rounded male interview subjects, so many spotlight hogs rooting and oinking around in the mud of their own emotions, their own personal shit. Let them have the spotlight, it’s so important to them. No, Sara just listens. She draws her conclusions and keeps them to herself. (You will, too, sitting in the dark, watching this film.) She gives her boys enough rope to hang themselves every time … the rope of silence.
Ultimately, Krasinski suggests, male or female, no one knows oneself — at least not at university, where the film is set. A man who works his entire life standing in a men’s restroom — he knows himself (the son talking about him doesn’t). A man who takes advantage of a distraught woman at an airport — he knows himself (prick, fine with it). But these aren’t the men who come to be interviewed by Sara. To end up in that interview room at all, one has to be self-blind to some extent. And talking about one’s flaws, hang-ups, insecurities, fetishes? It doesn’t help. Doesn’t help at all. It just makes them worse. Freud was wrong: there is no “talking cure.” Only a talking sickness.
I’ll shut up now.
Did I mention that David Foster Wallace was a literary genius and that John Krasinski, Jim from The Office, adapted Wallace faithfully yet conscientiously into an amazing, well-written, thought-provoking film?
I’ll shut up now … Shutting up now …