Writer-actor-director John Krasinski’s debut can certainly be admired for its ambition, as it tackles a structurally complex and multi-layered collection of stories by David Foster Wallace, attempting to tie them together with a frame narrative concerning the interviewer, a young woman looking to understand the inner lives of men and connect them to her own troubled search for meaning. It’s a ripe concept, full of humor and pathos, and Krasinski’s inherent likability shines through, especially in the emotional monologue he delivers as an actor, but also in its quick pace and snappy dialogue. That pace is both a boon to the film and likely its biggest weakness. At only 75 minutes, the film tackles too many massive issues – rape, racism, father-son relationships, gender stereotypes, sexual inadequacy, infidelity – to delve deeply into any of them, instead skimming the surface of all of them, and refusing to take any stance on the interactions of men and women.
Individually, many of the scenes work well, revealing something thought-provoking about the way men think, either by portraying them as utterly shallow stereotypes, or sensitive exceptions to the “alpha male” classification.The best of these is probably the interview given by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, with a possible stunt casting revealing one of the few understated, emotionally attuned actors in the ensemble. His reflections suggest a desire to really know a woman, in her most profound moment. This is something that the interviewer never expects, so jaded is she by the revelations of her previous interviews. While the structure itself reveals much about the character of this interviewer – a disenchanted, disconnected female grad student who is blinded by her arrogant view of social interaction – it also ends just as it gains momentum, leaving too many questionable threads dangling.
A major theme of the film is evaluating what women really want, often considered the “ultimate question” when it comes to male-female relationships in the modern age. Here it is applied to sex, in the case of an older man bragging that he has the key to being the perfect lover, and also in a broader sense, with two younger men trying to sort out the needs of the modern woman. The only modern woman we see here, though, is so disengaged with life that she utterly fails to connect with everyone around her, lacking empathy and the ability to see outside her own narrow life experience.
So what exactly, is the angle here? There is a disturbing amount of material here suggesting that, essentially, women want to be “overwhelmed with passion,” and that rape is an experience women cannot claim as uniquely violating for them. True connection between the genders is not possible in this filmic world. Even an orgasm is something that pushes couples apart, instead of bringing them together. This might be a theme merely stated by these characters, who are after all, supposed to be “hideous” in some way. We must be careful of reading the characters’ words and actions as the writer/director’s intentions. But I’m left wondering, if that’s not the message, what is? The film is too jammed full of ideas to be empty, pointless, or entirely ambiguous. Still, either Wallace or Krasinski is stubbornly refusing to throw out anything more substantial than some (admittedly witty) soundbites and monologues. This makes for a frustrating experience, because we need more honest and insightful dialogue about the social forces that control our perceptions of gender, sex, and self.