Saturday, December 4, 2010

Underrated Classics: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

I've been sick the past few days, so I've been taking advantage of the opportunity to laze about guilt-free with the excuse that I'm convalescing. Of course the only thing different about the past few days is that I've been consuming mass quantities of Vitamin C in addition to staying in my PJs and watching obscene amounts of Netflix Instant Watch. Having finally finished the magnum opus that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (how epic was that finale??), and completed the entire British sitcom series Coupling, I was in the mood to finally start checking off the actual films that have been sitting in my queue for months. Today's menu consisted of Singles, Doc Hollywood (unintentional 90s Bridget Fonda mini-marathon), and lastly Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

Obligatory poster. Kind of a boring one at that.

While the first two failed to really catch my imagination, the latter was absolutely riveting. I'd wanted to see Brief Interviews ever since I just barely missed attending the premiere hosted by John Krasinski himself. You undoubtedly recognize Krasinski as the most adorable male creature on Earth, Jim from the Office (which keeps making an appearance in this blog. I like it, but I'm not as obsessed with it as I come off). But this movie was clearly his baby. He adapted it for the screen, produced, directed, and had a significant role. Busy boy. I really had no idea what it was about, other than it was John Krasinski. It didn't get fabulous reviews, and was basically ignored. I guess critics assumed that all Krasinski was good for was being cute, bored, and snarky in 30 minute intervals. So that explains why I just got around to it tonight.

So freaking adorable! How could you not love this face?

The film really has no plot, which I sometimes have a hard time with in movies, but it works with this one. The premise is a grad student, Sara Quinn, interviewing different men about their experiences with life, love, and women. It's presented in a series of anecdotes and snapshots of characters. Some actual interviews, some encounters that Sara overhears. Her character really is a blank slate until the last few minutes of the film in which we realize her motivation. She observes and records with a frosty demeanor, like a scientist studying lab rats. I hated her at first, but then grew to understand and sympathize deeply with her.

The male cast portraying her subjects, most known only by their numbers (ie. Subject #51), is both incredible and somewhat random. Just to name a few: Will Forte (one of my favorites, a closeted gay man trying desperately to prove he loves women), Timothy Hutton, Will Arnett, Dominic Cooper, Christopher Meloni, even the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard, it's hard to imagine these people ever existing in the same universe, let alone the same movie. But it is that diversity that brings such scope to the film and its mission:

To prove that all men are hideous.

No, just kidding. I don't really think that was the point. Though there were times when I couldn't help but feel that. I love sociology and trying to understand people, particularly men whom I don't understand at all. I feel like Brief Interviews gave a glimpse into the male psyche and their views on feminism in today's world. Even the characters who were dark and damaged seemed real and grounded, neither truly evil nor heroic. I love flawed morality, individuals who exemplify the full spectrum of human emotion and motivation. So the film geek in me was super-stoked. Especially when I noted the use of jump cuts, non-linear narrative, and obvious influence by the French New Wave (could I sound any more pompous right now?). Those same elements of the uber-indie film kind of annoyed me at the same time. As if the project was trying far too hard to be taken seriously and made almost a mockery of itself by using so many conventions. But enough academic psychobabble. (I miss film school sometimes, can you tell?)

I'd like to pick out three performances in particular during which I couldn't tear my eyes away from my twelve inch tv screen. Krasinski as a director uses the deceptively simple tactic of turning on the camera and just letting it roll. No cutaways, no different angles, no frills to keep our ADD-addled eyes engaged. You're forced to stare at the actors faces as they unravel their painful tales and you aren't ever allowed to look away. That must be tough for the actors as well as the viewers. They have to get it all right in pretty much one take. The first I really noticed was a relatively unknown actor named Frankie Faison. I'm not sure how his role really fit in with the themes of the other interviews, but his story was intense.

Frankie Faison is amazing.

He talked about his father's career as the best bathroom attendant in one of the top-ranked historical hotels in the area. Everyday his father would show up for work in his freshly pressed all-white uniform and silently hand millionaires and CEOs towels. He took pride in his work, and in being unnoticed though he heard and saw all in the marble men's room with gold-leafed light fixtures. The subject (Faison) could never decide whether to be proud that his father worked so hard to put food on the table, or disgusted that he would degrade himself in such a manner. Faison refused to ever wear a single white article of clothing. The scene would cut back and forth to his father working in the men's room, and the subject relating it afterwards, causing the two realities to merge. This method of storytelling occurs frequently in the film, with great effectiveness.

Oh Dominic...Sigh

Another great performance was by Dominic Cooper, whom I had loved before from The History Boys, The Duchess, and Mamma Mia. I knew he was talented, but his character managed to be unhinged, frightening, and sympathetic all at once. He plays an undergrad in a class Sara TA's for. He writes a provocative paper about the survivors of rape and abuse and challenges Sara to consider the unexpected long-term benefits of such traumatic experiences. Naturally this produces a knee jerk reaction for Sara and all audience members both female and male. But he makes an excellent point. They've been through the worst thing they could ever possibly imagine, and they are still here. I'm not sure if I personally agree with his perspective, but it was thought-provoking. Sara is appalled by this, but Cooper defends his argument in three different scenes cut together. He explains that his sister was raped by four men who inflicted all manner of abuse upon her. But she survived. As his story becomes more and more intense, he finally reveals it was not his sister, but himself who was raped. The more interesting factor is, does this make a difference in how she views his paper? Whoa... mindfuck right?

The last and most impressive display was by John Krasinski himself. I'd seen him in a few bit parts in movies here and there. The films Leatherheads and License to Wed in which he actually had leads, were sadly eh. I was never really in love with any character other than Jim which he plays effortlessly, implying that he is just being himself. The one exception would be Away We Go which you must watch this very instant because it is outstanding. But by the time his big monologue towards the end was finished, I was almost in tears. He plays Sara's ex-boyfriend who cheated on her with some hippie chick. He explains with sociopathic detail about how he managed to seduce this woman with the intent of a one night stand. He connects with her for as long as it took to get her into bed, hitting all the right notes. Krasinski comes off as a jackass, but an insightful one. He's not afraid that the audience might hate him.

But then he relates the story that the hippie chick told him about how she was hitchhiking and was picked up by a sex offender. She knew as soon as she got into the car that something was wrong. Her faith was telling her to look the man directly in his eye and to empathize with him, no matter what. Not to scream, to plea, but to listen. By the time he actually raped her, he was crying. I had mixed feelings about the story itself, but Krasinski's retelling was incredible. He starts off so cool and Jim-like. But the power of the anecdote moved him. And Sara's unflappable expression pisses him off. He knows that she's judging him and calls her out on it. It's a very powerful scene that ruined my view of Jim a little (no man gets to call a woman a bitch under any circumstances), but increased my opinion of John as an actor. Who knew he had such skills?

And one more for good measure. Good on you, John.

To wrap up, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is sadly underrated (5.7 rating on IMDB). I can't wait to see more from John Krasinski as a director and as an actor with meatier roles than the All-American put-upon male lead in chick flicks. I'm curious to see what he would do with a more conventional film. Plus, he's just pretty to look at, swooooon! I hope I didn't give too much away. There is far too much substance to this film to really ruin it by highlighting a few of its best features. Anyway, give it a chance. It's on instant watch, so there's really no excuse not to.


  1. I will add it to my instant queue right away...hopefully I'll get to watching it before they take it off. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I've had movies that have been in my queue since the first time I started my Netflix account Freshman year of college, about five years ago. It almost feels like work to be this entertained.

  3. I had this in my queue for a while now, I had no idea Jim was the one who did it! It'll definitely get a higher priority now, sounds interesting.