Supposedly, once you hear the name Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, you need never read the actual book. The film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a different dissertation on male-female dynamics, similarly loads most of its content into its title. "The Office's" John Krasinski wrote, directed and co-stars in his adaptation of the book by the late David Foster Wallace, but wastes his cast's manpower on themes that could fit on the average tweet, with letters to spare.
Wallace presented his short stories as interview transcripts. Krasinski's framing device is a recently dumped graduate student named Sara (Julianne Nicholson) researching the beliefs and feelings of ordinary straight guys, whose hideousness emerges in their attitudes toward women. A few inspire laughs, like the poor sap who blurts a ridiculous epithet at intimate moments, or Will Forte's list of what he loves about women, which sounds so clichéd, you wonder if he's ever had a girlfriend. With most of the subjects, however, hostility and predatory sexuality lurk barely below the surface, like a pale copy of Neil LaBute's work.
The film cuts between the interview room and Sara in her real life as she hears (or imagines) similar speeches, such as the two cater waiters discussing what women want; a skeevy businessman (Christopher Meloni) recounting a callous seduction at an airport; and a wheedling neighbor (Will Arnett) talking to his girlfriend from the other side of a door. Few of these vignettes rise above the level of acting exercises, proving so brief, the performers never get to convey more than one dimension. As one of Sara's students, Dominic Cooper resorts to embarrassing histrionics as he argues about his "provocative" essay.
The odd man out proves to be Hideous' most effective vignette. "The Wire's" Frankie Faison talks about his father's "career" as a washroom attendant in an era of limited African-American opportunities. The episode mostly takes place at the men's room of a luxury hotel and touches on complex issues of familial pride and class resentment, in sharp contrast to the rest of the film's black-and-white simplicity.
As a director, Krasinski indulges in cuts and chronological scrambling, perhaps to emulate Wallace's post-modern experiments, or maybe in an ill-advised attempt to replicate the rhythms and tempos of music. The flourishes feel more like he's gussying up thin ideas. Several monologues retain Wallace's precise, analytical sentences, which sound unnatural in casual conversation. Krasinski's own monologue, at the film's crescendo, has the most stilted language of all. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men establishes that Krasinski has a darker side than his role as nice-guy Jim Halpert on "The Office." The film's ideas, however, turn out to be hideously obvious.