Sunday, July 25, 2010

You can't handle the truth

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009) is based on a probably unadaptable book. In fact, it arrived on screen via a theatrical workshop in which writer-director John Krasinski participated. By no means does it encompass the entire book, nor is it a work of film mastery.

But it should be seen for the sake of three superb sequences of which any novice director could be very, very proud. The first is illustrated, an appalling story told by Chris Meloni, whom I had only known from Law and Order: SVU, but who evidently has an improv background, as evidenced by Wet Hot American Summer, which I will be writing about in the near future. Meloni's character tells of meeting a woman who has been wronged by a man. He deplores this fellow's terrible behavior and then takes advantage of her himself. Simple, predictable on paper, but Meloni delivers it with such variety and nuance--even while it is clear that this man is a self-absorbed jerk--that it still is a surprising and guilty pleasure.

Frankie Faison executes a brilliant set piece about his father, a washroom attendant, whose whole life was about pleasing the white man while remaining invisible, and his hatred, contempt and love for that father. And John Krasinski does a superb job with a long existential monologue about why men behave the way they do which should not work on film at all, but because of his skill and his confidence about the material, works perfectly. The language throughout is that of Wallace, which although not resembling actual human speech, but is artificial and self-conscious in such a way that it makes the material far less offensive than it would otherwise be.

Krasinski has added a frame story about a jilted woman who is conducting the interviews as part of a graduate thesis, but the structure is loose nonetheless, and the film is driven more by the quality of its parts than by a real narrative push. At times it feels like a comedy sketch film, especially due to the running conversation of two waiters, who operate as links between pieces; the theatrical roots of the project are never far from view (especially in the Faison piece, which is shot like a Jarmusch film, with head-on angles and static shots).

It makes an interesting contrast with The Vicious Kind (2009) another Sundance Festival favorite about why men are so terrible. The film almost disappeared, but has resurfaced this year due to the new prominence of its lead actor, Adam Scott, who starred in Party Down on Starz and Tell Me You Love Me and has a story arc in Parks and Recreation that started this spring and will continue into the fall.

Scott has a face and demeanor that allow him to play very kind and innocent people and horribly cruel people, and he does both as the confused, tortured, sleepless and angry Caleb in The Vicious Kind. Scott has long specialized in jerks, but you might call Caleb a jerk with an explanation.

It is a film about transgression and betrayal which throws your sympathies toward the transgressors. The innocent Peter is pretty annoying, and even J.K. Simmons doesn't become likeable until one learns that he was the guilty party in his marriage, not the injured one. Consequently our sympathies for Brittany Snow's Emma shift as she shifts from victim to vamp.

Oddly, what I thought about as I watched this film was not so much Neil Labute or David Mamet but Arthur Miller, because the primal nature of the triangle between two brothers and a father who, intentionally or not, puts the boys in competition with each other for his approval. Tellingly, the denouement is not about ultimate revelation and breat-beating truth-telling, as it would be for, say, Eugene O'Neill, but acceptance and, finally, a truce in the long family war. Writer-director Lee Toland Krieger does well with his limited story materials, keeps it simple, yet with steady motion. (I enjoy any indie movie which does not have long close-ups of actors staring at nothing in which I have no idea what they or I are supposed to be thinking.)

Emotional violence then, is like physical violence. The only way to stop the cycle is to just stop. That process makes surprisingly good film fodder.

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