David Foster Wallace’s 1999 short-story collection includes a host of anthropological studies, brimming with confused, conflicted masculinity: the everyguy who yells “victory for the forces of democratic freedom” during sex, the buttery stud who preaches self-satisfaction, the mook who uses a deformed arm as a seduction tool. Wallace’s monologues seem easily translatable to the theater (a stage production ran during the 2000 NYC Fringe Festival). The question is, could someone turn these full-frontal-dudity snapshots into a satisfying, cohesive movie?
Answer: no, but not for lack of trying. A labor of love for actor, director and writer John Krasinski, his screen adaptation treats the late novelist’s twisty, eloquent prose like gospel and adds a female grad student (Nicholson) as a unifying element. Actors like Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Meloni and Will Arnett clearly have fun wallowing in such bad XY-chromosome behavior, while Frankie Faison’s anecdote about a washroom attendant will make your hairs stand on end.
None of which, of course, stops the film from devolving into a repetitive drama-school exercise. The more these hideous men statically unveil their inner fratboys, the less they register as either shocking or insightful; even adding a Greek chorus and dramatizing an airport Casanova’s conquest can’t make such recitations feel vital. The Office star saves a particularly vile selection for himself, involving hippie chicks, rape and infidelity. Here’s where the tribute to Wallace’s brilliance in tapping boorishness hits the tipping point; by the time Krasinski bellows a mealymouthed “Bitch!” at his ex, it’s clear that this brief excavation of ugliness can’t be over soon enough.