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Jed P. Cohen

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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Women and (Mostly) Men

Posted: 09/26/09 04:01 PM ET

Caveat Lector

In the interest of full disclosure, I must here admit that I am a massive, overly enthusiastic, often proselytizing, obviously pleonastic fan of David Foster Wallace. My admiration for his writing will doubtless (1) influence this review. So, there it is.

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What do women want? Countless movies, books, episodes of Sex and the City, and issues of Maxim have been devoted to this very silly question, and all inevitably come up with the same answer: a whopping "Search Me." This is because when one tries to generalize about a large sample group, e.g. half the world's population, one will discover that for all the similarities within that group, there are equally as many deviations. Ask five women on the street what they look for in a man (or woman, as the case may be), and you will of course get five different answers. And despite the reputed male penchant for the blonde and large-breasted, five men will give you five very different ideal women.

This is more or less where "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" picks up. (For clarity's sake, I'll italicize when talking about Wallace's book. Or I'll just say "Wallace's book.") Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a graduate student in anthropology at an unnamed East Coast school (2) studying the feminist movement, switches her focus from women to men and begins a series of interviews in an attempt to uncover the lingering impact of feminism on the male psyche. The impetus for the switch is her breakup with Ryan/Subject #20, played by John Krasinski. The viewer doesn't get any real sense of their relationship beyond a few flashbacks -- one of Ryan goofily raising his wine glass to Sara; another at a dinner party, where Ryan launches into a Billy Joel tune on the piano, inspiring a hackneyed group-sing that seems lifted from You've Got Mail. (3) But we see that she's at least distracted -- she gets a short, emo haircut and listens to her iPod a lot -- if not heartbroken, so we assume the relationship was pretty serious.

If this sounds overly flippant re: Sara's character, it's because, though hers is the tenuous narrative holding the movie together, she is finally unimportant. She functions as a stand-in for the viewer -- a silent, passive receptor for the sometimes comical, often cruel confessions of the men she interviews. In Wallace's book, the interviews are wholly one-sided -- the interviewer's questions are effaced. Here too, the viewer does not see or hear Sara's prompts; the movie, true to Wallace, is about the men.

Sara's interviewees are ostensibly boorish, infantile, infantilizing, perverse, uncaring, shallow -- in a word, heinous. Some of the interviews seem to bear this out: Subject #40, played by a wise-talking Bobby Cannavale, has only half of his right arm, the other half (we assume) lost in an industrial plant accident. Instead of viewing this as a disability, Subject #40 dubs his amputated arm "The Asset" and uses it to make women feel sorry for him, and later sleep with him. It's disgusting, right? Well, let's unpack this a bit. Despite his bravado re: his arm and his view of it as a tool, as a means to bedding women, he is still disabled, still without the use of his right arm. Calling it The Asset is clearly a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with a horrific accident. And are the women really being preyed upon? Do they feel used? Maybe not. Maybe they feel loving and generous and sensitive ignoring this guy's arm and sleeping with him. Or maybe they go back to their friends and say, "Listen, he only has one arm, the least I could do is sleep with him." Who comes out better in a situation like this? (4)

The power of Wallace's interviews, and thus the power of the interviews in the film, is their moral ambiguity, their subtle interrogation of our initial judgments. The most compelling interview in the film (which also yields the most compelling performance) is with Daniel/Subject #46, played with a crazed intensity by Dominic Cooper. Daniel is an undergraduate and one of Sara's students. He hounds her for comments on a paper he has written for her -- a tendentious piece positing that there are benefits to be had from horrible events, e.g. rape, incest, or, rhetorically, the Holocaust. Sara reacts with revulsion, as does the viewer. But Daniel continues, telling a story about his sister, who was beaten and gang raped at a party. He argues that she now knows something about herself: she knows what it feels like to no longer be a person, but a thing; and that knowledge is worth something in itself. Then, at the emotional climax of the story, the sex of the victim changes, and it is suddenly not Daniel's sister but Daniel who was raped. Sara, bewildered, says nothing. And the viewer, squirming in self-contradiction and confusion, is silent as well.

Unfortunately, the film only rarely rises to these rhetorical and emotional heights. The supposed "tough guys" in the film -- played by Cannavale, Corey Stoll, and Christopher Meloni -- all come off sounding like bad impressions of tough guys. (Those who have watched Oz know that Meloni can play tough.) And the "nice guys" -- Sara's colleagues and friends, played by Joey Slotnick, Timothy Hutton, and Ben Gibbard -- seem canned and unconvincing. (Interestingly, Ben Gibbard, a musician best known as the frontman for Death Cab for Cutie, turns in the most natural performance among these trained actors.)

Perhaps this is because Krasinski, who directed, was too loyal to Wallace's text. Try to follow me here: many of the actor' lines were taken verbatim from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and, to be honest, the way Wallace's characters talk isn't the way real people talk. Wallace's interviewees are a strange admixture of his own intellect and that of the created character; their monologues are calculated, painstakingly constructed efforts at sounding off-the-cuff and extempore. So, when the actors, who are trained to sound off-the-cuff and extempore, read these constructions as definitive lines in the script, they are actually reading seriously premeditated, semantically irregular approximations of normal speech that, if the actor is given no leeway and is required to recite the line as such, end up sounding not like a person talking, but like a writer writing like people talk, which results in a singular kind of falsity this viewer has never encountered before. (5)

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(1) Some of you might object to the form doubtless here rather than doubtlessly (or, if not object, just think it sounds weird). But, after consulting my just-bought copy of Garner's Modern American Usage, I discovered that doubtless is an adverb, and that use of doubtlessly is, well, doubtless incorrect. I would have kept this little aside to myself if it didn't bear some relation to the proceedings: I bought Garner's because of an essay Wallace wrote called "Authority and American Usage," which I would recommend to any Armchair Grammarian.

(2) A.k.a. Columbia, where all the collegiate scenes were shot. As a former Columbian, I appreciate that no (noticeable) changes were made to the campus to facilitate the plot, as in Spider-Man, when a payphone magically appears outside of Hamilton Hall, inspiring in this viewer a fit of near Swedish Fish-tossing intensity.

(3) Yes, I have seen You've Got Mail. A bunch.

(4) Of course, if there were genuine feelings on either side of the transaction, it would be a different story. But Subject #40 does not describe his rendezvous as having any true emotion or intellectual content.

(5) Does that make sense?