Like lab samples, the interviewees themselves are identified by subject numbers. Indeed, the cell in which they’re interrogated is more concrete dungeon than ivory tower. Or, if you will, an outsized petri dish to observe variation and behavior: the first dude — much to his chagrin — ejaculates “Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!” during his climactic flourish; the next uses his deformed limb to guilt-trip women into bed; yet another splits with five different women using the same excuse, like some sort of customer service asshole; and the un-saintly keep marching in for diminishing returns. Spaced out with jump cuts, we don’t hear the questions posed during these interviews, although they’re encoded in the lengthy, self-justifying responses, some that hint at those typical Wallace motifs of alienation and desperation. Yet, with the static camera, we’re also too aware of the “act” being caught, as if each man was auditioning for a theatrical role as Stanley Kowalski by baring their sexual hang-ups.
Once in the outside world — at the aforementioned dinner parties, the café, even at home — Sara’s grandiose “What is Man?” dossier takes in conversational encounters with a student fixated on his grisly essay thesis (Dominic Cooper), her thoughtful professor/mentor (Timothy Hutton), and, at long last, her snide ex-boyfriend (Krasinski). Even overheard exchanges, such as a switchback tale about an airport pick-up being discussed by Christopher Meloni and Denis O’Hare, take on heightened significance to her.
Krasinski frees Wallace’s prose from its undisclosed setting with these apt and clever relocations, but he’s much less successful with the two-headed Greek chorus (Max Minghella and Lou Taylor Pucci) that swaggers about their scenes, blathering about female desires for naught. At that, the use of recognizable faces — like Will Arnett and Ben Gibbard — allows for a few guffaws, but detracts from anything incisive. But the core problem is the sad-eyed Sara: invented by the filmmaker to be the narrative’s hub and the raison d’être for the no-prisoners investigation of this XY-psyche (the book left the impetus open-ended), she remains too half-drawn (or withdrawn) a character, a red-headed placeholder rather than the flesh-and-blood protagonist needed to tie the brief, floating ideas and observations into a cohesive wallop. In the end, it has to be said that the truth of men can’t be found in this film either.