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No time for insight in ‘Brief Interviews’

Writer-director John Krasinski spends so little time with each of the male “subjects” being interviewed that it’s hard to connect with any of them or feel intrigued or moved by their stories.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The “brief” part is one of the biggest problems in “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.”

In adapting the late David Foster Wallace’s book of the same name, writer-director John Krasinski spends so little time with each of the male “subjects” being interviewed about their fears and fantasies, it’s hard to connect with any of them or feel intrigued or moved by their stories. They mainly come off as neurotic, obnoxious or both. And the actors playing them are so self-consciously performing as they sit at the same table and talk into the same microphone, one after another, their soliloquies feel stagey and false.

Subject No. 14 (Ben Shenkman), as he’s known scientifically, is afraid to be intimate with women because of his tendency to scream out something totally inappropriate at the point of climax (it’s actually a pretty funny line). Subject No. 59 (Joey Slotnick) recalls having his first erotic sensations while watching “Bewitched” as a child. And so on.

By contrast, the woman questioning them for her doctoral thesis in anthropology, the reserved Sara (Julianne Nicholson), exhibits so little personality, she’s a cipher — and she’s supposed to be the central figure holding everything together.

Krasinski is making his debut behind the camera here, but the star of TV’s “The Office” is actually more effective in front of it. He appears in one of the stronger sequences in this scattershot production as Ryan (or Subject No. 20), the man who’s come in and out of Sara’s life and inspired her study. He’s clearly as comfortable with drama as he is with comedy, as evidenced by his work as a prospective father in “Away We Go.” But then he undermines his own performance here with copious jump cuts, a distracting and gimmicky device he uses far too frequently.

Krasinski intersperses the interviews with dramatic segments showing Sara interacting with her various subjects — at a campus party, at a bar, etc. — but neither approach provides much insight into the male psyche. Too often, we get cliches: Men view women as objects, they have commitment issues, they don’t understand what women want. A pair of catering waiters (Max Minghella and Lou Taylor Pucci) who follow Sara around and serve as her Greek chorus don’t help much, either.

Timothy Hutton, Dominic Cooper, Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Meloni are among the co-stars in the sprawling ensemble cast. Josh Charles is the center of an amusing and rhythmic sequence in which he breaks up with a series of women in the exact same way using the exact same excuses. But then “Brief Interviews” massively wastes Will Arnett as a guy standing at a woman’s door begging her to let him in.

Even more baffling, though, is the inclusion of a long scene in which a black man known as Subject No. 42 (Frankie Faison) recalls how his father (Malcolm Goodwin) worked his whole life as a bathroom attendant at an upscale hotel. It’s well-acted but feels totally out of place with the rest of the material. Still, in its exploration of racism, classism and identity, it gets closer to the truth than anything that comes before or afterward.