For those who have never attended the Sundance Film Festival, every year there is a set of festival promos that run before all of the films. This year’s opening videos include interviews with some of Sundance’s most prominent figures from the last 25 years, from Robert Redford to Paul Thomas Anderson to John Waters. They all have a different them, but end with the simple title ‘What’s Next.” And coincidentally, the opening video playing in front of many of films in competition talks about the fact that Sundance is always searching for great new voices telling great new stories. So it is fitting that this particular opening video played in front of John Krasinski’s directorial debut Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, as it is a perfect example of a great new voice in the world of filmmaking telling a story that isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before.
We know him as Jim from The Office, but with Brief Interviews it is clear that Krasinski has a future in the director’s chair. Working with an immensely difficult piece of source material, the book by the same name by the late David Foster Wallace, Krasinski has delivered a clever and inventive adaptation that should play well with both fans of the book and the intellectually inclined moviegoer (read: those of us who like those “talky” movies). The story follows Sarah (Julianne Nicholson), a young grad student who has recently gone through a terrible break-up. Her solution for the heartache she’s experiencing after the break is a research project that involves a series of interviews with men. And as she records the astonishing and sometimes odd experiences of her subject, she begins to learn important lessons not only about the nature of men, but about her self as well.
The seemingly simple story is delivered with a great reverence to the source material, a sharp and biting exploration of the male psyche. Having read the book, I was impressed with John Krasinski’s ability, as a storyteller, to bring the razor sharp tone of David Foster Wallace’s novel to life. Some of the language seemed to be toned back a bit, but the soul of the book is there. It is clear to anyone who is a big fan of the book that Krasinski has a real love for Wallace’s work. His movie is an unapologetically faithful and ambitious adaptation. This works both for and against it. The film is just as provocative and darkly comedic as the book, delivering moments that are light and fun as well as intense dramatic scenes that are deeply poignant and affecting. One specific example is a scene in which Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, played by Krasinski himself, explains the root cause of their break-up. Her reaction is a stunning representation of the drama that can be delivered without words, as well as an example of the powerful expressiveness of Julianne Nicholson, the film’s definitive star.
There are also plenty of memorable men in the movie who flank Nicholson’s excellent portrayal of Sarah. Funnymen Will Arnett and Will Forte lend supporting performances that earn some laughs, as does Bobby Cannavale. Mamma Mia‘s Dominic Cooper also delivers in some of the film’s most intensely dramatic scenes. The most memorable of the male performances however, comes from the tandem of Frankie Faison and Malcolm Goodwin. Faison plays a man telling the story of his father, who worked tirelessly as a restroom attendant in a high-class hotel in the 60s. The scene is distinctive because it doesn’t exactly fit with many of the other interviews, but it is one of the most beautifully executed and scenes in the entire film.
As I mentioned, the faithfulness of this adaptation also works against the film. In a way, it isn’t a very accessible film. The average moviegoer may find it to be too dialog heavy, as it plays out much more like a stage play or series of monologues than what you might expect out of a film. As well, it follows a very non-linear story structure, jumping back and forth between times and dates without any sort of guide. While some people find this sort of thing to be bothersome, I would contend that it is executed brilliantly in Brief Interviews. For my money, this is one of the best first time directorial efforts that you are going to see all year. It was clearly a tough gig, and what David Foster Wallace adaptation wouldn’t be? But Krasinski was clearly the right man for the job. Just the sort of new voice telling an ambitious new story in a unique way that has fueled the success of the Sundance Film Festival for the past 25 years, and should continue to fuel it for plenty of years to come.