The film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is based on a collection of short stories of the same title written by David Foster Wallace, the shaggy ex-wunderkind who tied a noose and checked himself out of this vale of tears just over a year ago. The film is full of Wallace’s turbocharged language — it is full of very little else — but the mood of it owes at least as much to Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic musings on the impossibility of love as it does to Wallace’s trademark spirals of neurotic analysis. It is one part Infinite Jest and one part The Elementary Particles.
There is nothing in Wallace’s conspectus of male sexual panic that could be described as a plot, and the film does very little to invent one. The stories consist of men’s answers to interview questions — questions the reader never sees — and all we know of the interviewer we learn from her subjects: her “chilly smile,” her detached clinical manner. In the film the interviewer gets a name, Sara Quinn; a face (the freckly one of Julianne Nicholson, known mostly as Detective Wheeler of Law and Order: Criminal Intent); and a garnish of back story: She has been studying the effects of feminism, and she has been treated cruelly by her unfaithful boyfriend (played by John Krasinski of The Office; he also directed the film). She proposes to study why post-feminist man is the defective specimen of familiar experience, and the interviews constitute her research.
That’s a pretty thin reed on which to hang a film, even a brief one (80 minutes), but Krasinski has the good sense to leave most of the hard work to Wallace, who was the finest writer of his generation, and whose funhouse-mirror digressions are more than capable of sustaining a performance (as a stage version of Brief Interviews
some years ago proved). And so we are led through Wallace’s garden of grotesques: the coprolaliac who involuntarily shouts, “Victory to the forces of democratic freedom!” at the least opportune moment; the lowlife with the stunted and deformed arm he calls “the Asset,” which he uses to shame sympathetic women into having sex with him; the cracked idealist who cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning
in arguing that rape and abuse can have soul-enlarging effects for those who suffer them. A few of the stories are pried from the interview context and worked into the plot, such as it is. In a nod to the book’s unseen-interviewer format, a man shut out of his apartment by his angry girlfriend has a pleading conversation with her through the locked door, and we are privy only to his side. In another scene, one of the collection’s ugliest monologues is delivered to the jilted interviewer by her cad of an ex-boyfriend in a wallowing, self-exculpatory explanation of his behavior.
The men in this film are consigned to an emasculated existence in which there is little or no theater for the virile virtues, and so they find themselves either sunk into a state of erotic despair or driven to rage and psychopathy. It is here that the spirit of Houellebecq creeps in, with its implicit conclusion that postmodern man lives on a spectrum that ranges from eunuch to rapist, and that he always is moving toward one pole or the other with no obvious way out. So it is appropriate that the film is set on a tony East Coast college campus. Wallace was an unsparing observer of the smug and sterile university life — campus sex codes and Maoist denunciations are unspoken features of the moral landscape — and the film’s depiction of unbearable grad-school cocktail parties is deadly without quite being a lampoon. (If National Review’s September education special wasn’t enough to make you want to skip college altogether, this film might do the trick.) It’s a perfect little hothouse world in which to study how and why things have gone so dreadfully wrong between American men and women.
Or between American men and men. The film’s finest sequence (it is not a remarkable part of the book) is an imaginary dialogue between a middle-aged man and his estranged father, who for decades has worked as an attendant in the men’s room of a swanky hotel. “Imagine not existing until a man needs you,” he says of his father, turning an antique feminist criticism on its head. His shame and his contempt are almost difficult to watch (the role is performed by Frankie R. Faison, most memorable as Barney, the asylum nurse in Silence of the Lambs, and a reliable receptacle of Hollywood numinosity). But his father feels neither; he justifies his job, and his life, with four words: “Food on the table.” He is a man from another age, one in which both expectations and ambitions were more modest. He lives in a world of — well, you know — but enjoys the self-respect that comes (or rather, came) from enduring at even a menial job.
Wallace’s admirers tend to have proprietary feelings about his work (God help whoever eventually tries to make Infinite Jest into a movie!) and they will no doubt be disappointed that so much of his language here has been truncated and dickied with in small ways. But the film captures the sadness and frustration at the center of the book, even if it necessarily jettisons much of Wallace’s verbal pyrotechnics. It is a work of comedy, but it is a serious examination of a serious subject.
–Kevin Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review.