Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, book vs. movie

Posted on November 28, 2009


I saw this movie with a close friend who, like me, is a big fan of David Foster Wallace. Because we both went into the movie with certain expectations and background understanding (having read the stories, loved them, remembered them well), we had requirements for this movie that were almost certain not to be met.

In fact, I think that the experience of people like us (or of anyone who went to see this as a fan of the book, constantly comparing it to the source material) was probably so different from that of anyone who went to see the movie blindly with no knowledge of the book that I almost can’t evaluate the movie just as a movie; only as an adaptation.

I can conjecture as to whether this movie would be good on its own as a cinematic experience (I actually don’t think so), but for the most part my reaction and opinions are rooted in how well (the answer: not very) I thought the film succeeded as an adaptation of a major, brilliant work of short fiction (that is, the four ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’ stories in the larger collection of the same title).

First of all, the entire form of the film is a crude, forced departure from the stories, in which, sure, a woman is interviewing, but not only is there no text for her questions (just a clever Q. each time), but as a character she is absent. Not the case in the movie, where the interviewer is a female character, certainly the “protagonist” of the movie if there must be one, and is the focal point of a number of flashbacks about her personal life and romantic background. I understand that this framing device is necessary for the story to be a cohesive movie rather than just a series of interviews (which would be boring, visually) but that’s why, perhaps, the material should not have been adapted in the first place. I applaud John Krasinski for the effort, but this material just does not work on the big screen.

But okay, move past the stuffy, necessary framing device into the actual interviews. Some are terrific and stay very close to the source (I think even using the exact text as dialogue). Ben Shenkman does his bit—about yelling “Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!” during sex—to perfection. Bobby Cannavale is also very well cast as the guy who uses his deformed arm as an “asset” to guilt women into sleeping with him. Dominic Cooper is a terrific choice for the ballsy student who argues that being raped might be a good ‘learning experience’ for a woman. Finally, Death Cab front man Ben Gibbard is actually quite solid in his role as chatty-but-shy/mildly depressed guy.

But many of the scenes have been botched in the transfer from page to screen. For example, my personal favorite exchange from the book is when one guy tells his friend the story of being in an airport and picking up a girl who was heartbroken after her boyfriend didn’t show up to receive her when her flight landed. The story ends with the storyteller concluding, “You have never seen anything like this heartbreak on this girl with the tits, and I start telling her how she’s right the guy’s a shit and don’t even deserve and how it’s true most guys are shit and how my heart’s going out and all like that.” A says, “Heh heh. So then what happened?” B says only, “Heh heh.” A: “Heh heh heh.” B: “You really got to ask?” A: “You bastard. You shitheel.” B: “Well you know how it is I mean what are you going to do.” A: “You shitheel.” B: “Well you know.”

It’s a fabulous bit of writing, makes perfect use of the form, and it’s hilarious but also a brilliantly accurate representation of how an exchange of this kind really goes on. For my money, it’s the finest bit in the entire story collection, and that’s saying a lot. As for the scene in the movie? It just can’t do the writing justice. The casting is fine; Denis O’Hare and Christopher Meloni fit into the roles well. But the directorial choices are puzzling, because to show the scene occurring—that is, “scene” meaning the airport scene that B is telling to A—does makes sense (it obviously wouldn’t be visually interesting enough to just see the man telling the story), but Krasinski chooses to actually insert the two men into the airport scene as it happens, as random characters that continually switch, like bystanders and flight attendants. It’s strange and jarring. It would have been better, and simpler, to merely show us the Meloni character in the airport (since he was actually there, it happened to him) interspersed with shots of Meloni now telling O’Hare the story later in a cafe.

Then there’s the story about the guy whose father worked in a bathroom of a fancy office building. In the film, it gets a scene in which the father stands in the bathroom while his son looks on and narrates the story (which gets very graphic about shit smells, shit sounds, and routines of ass-wiping and hand-washing). As my friend whispered to me during the movie, the scene feels “weirdly racial.” In addition, it’s the only ‘interview’ of the movie that does not revolve around men and women. Women are wholly absent. It’s about a man’s complicated relationship (pride of work ethic clashing with shame of social class) with his father, and it doesn’t belong in the movie. Strangely enough, my friend and I agreed that, in retrospect, this interview was out of place in the book, too, but for some reason that never occurred to us when reading the book. I suppose it’s better handled in text.

The most problematic ‘interview’ is the final scene of the movie, for which Krasinski cast himself. Taking the best, most emotionally-charged part seems a little self-important but then again, Krasinski said in a later interview that someone else was cast originally but it didn’t work out, so the director jumped in to save the day. Regardless, the scene itself is kind of ruined from what was a terrific bit of dialogue in the book. Krasinski chooses to have the speech take place as a sort of confessional, with Krasinski’s character basically yelling at the girl who has been conducting the interviews. It doesn’t work well, mostly because the dialogue in this part of the book feels stilted when spoken aloud—especially lines like “I believed that she could save me!” and, “I see you there, I can see it on your face, well go ahead. Judge me, you bitch!” The monologue becomes very awkward and loses the mingling of emotion and irony that the text so beautifully achieves.

That last sentiment pretty much applies to most of the movie, though again, I admire the attempt to adapt such a daunting work, one that Krasinski clearly loves. Now let’s hope no one ever tries to put Infinite Jest on the big screen.

Posted in: DBR Blog