I'm not sure what exactly John Krasinski, the writer/director/co-star of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, has done to earn the scathing reviews his picture has been greeted with; he certainly didn't make a bad film. He did make one that is flawed and uncertain and occasionally too mannered, yes, but it is also funny and unorthodox and sharp as a razor. None of that seems to have come across to the critics who are slicing it up; the Village Voice (a publication which, in all fairness, hates just about everything) calls it a "disaster," while the Times insists that "there is no unifying motif connecting the fragments," as if such a thing were necessary or, in this case, even desirable. (Plus, you could argue that there is one, so there's that too.) In fact, Brief Interviews is at its best when it's content to pop around like a blackout sketch revue, with a funny encounter here and a disturbing confession there and an unexpected interpolation following.
The film's critics might ask what the hell any of that has to do with David Foster Wallace, whose book inspired the film, and that's a question I don't have an answer to, since I haven't read the book (a confession which may negate this entire review in the eyes of some readers). Too often, criticism of a literary adaptation is couched in how well the film is adapted, rather than how well the film stands on its own merits; I can't judge if Krasinkski's screenplay is faithful to the source material, but I can judge how well it works as its own beast.
In fact, it feels more like an adaptation of a play than of a book--it has the rhythm, efficiency, and brute force of early Mamet (particularly Sexual Perversity in Chicago), and it has a very theatrical mood (that's meant as a compliment), particularly in the stylized language of its many smart monologues and an extended (and rather brilliant) duet scene between Christopher Meloni and Denis O'Hare. This is not to say that the picture is stagey or claustrophobic--indeed, the debuting director is clearly having fun playing with form, exploiting inventive voice-over and circular editing like a kid playing with a new toy.
Wallace's book was a collection of short stories, which Krasinski expands into a full narrative by creating the character of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), the unnamed interviewer of the original, now a graduate student pondering the male psyche. Some of the title interviews are just that, a man in a room, talking into a microphone; others are overheard, or pontifications by the men in her life, including her thesis advisor (Timothy Hutton), a neighbor (Will Arnett), and, most devastatingly, a recent ex (played by Krasinski himself).
In fact, the film is stocked with excellent actors; Josh Charles, Bobby Cannavale, Ben Shenkman, SNL's Will Forte, and the great Clarke Peters (aka Lester Freamon on The Wire) drop in, and all of them get a tasty chunk of Wallace's text to chew on. Krasinski runs into trouble when he gets into more conventional dialogue scenes; they often don't have the same zing as the monologues, and some of the connective tissue is awfully tentative. But Nicholson's understated performance helps; with her cropped hair, open, blank face, and dry wit, she's perfectly cast.
The first half of the film is more successful than the second; early on, it functions primarily as a comedy (albeit a dark and occasionally disturbing one), with the laughs often found less in the sharp turns of phrase and more in the perfectly-timed pauses and half-beats. The back half of the picture, in which Krasinski starts to take the material more seriously, has some problems; an extended piece with Frankie Faison talking about his father works just fine as a self-contained short film but doesn't have jack squat to do with the rest of the movie, though the difficult sequence that follows (a sharply-sliced combination of several confrontations with a combative, repulsive student) is undeniably effective.
Krasinski does make one critical mistake at the film's end, by casting himself as the "subject" who must deliver the monologue that Sara finds most personally annihilating. He's a terrific comic actor (a fact proven, week in and week out, on The Office), but he's just not up to the job here; the speech, as he performs it, sounds "written" in a way that none of the other actors' did. The smart play would have been to swap roles with Chris Messina (Krasinski's Away We Go co-star), who is good if underutilized in a comic encounter early in the film.
But Krasinski, the actor, coming up short doesn't derail the accomplishment of Krasinski, the writer/director. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is far from perfect, and a more disciplined adaptation could have possibly been cleaner, tighter, more fluent. But it might have lacked the fire and ingenuity of Krasinski's passion project. This is an actor who could probably keep making easy payday projects like License to Wed until the cows come home, but instead, he put together a risky, difficult project by an author who most directors consider unfilmable. That counts for something.