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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Good Low Art, Mediocre High Art

For me, it’s one of the most difficult questions to answer when it comes to film: would I rather see a film that aims high and fails or a film that aims low and succeeds?  It’s really impossible for me to say what I would choose in general, especially with such vague terms as “high” and “low” or “succeed” and “fail.”  But I do know that I preferredSurrogates to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

One could say that Surrogates aims higher because of its ambitious premise requiring lots of special effects work; it imagines a future world where human beings can control robotic surrogates instead of actually going out into the real world.  However, I don’t think anybody would argue that Surrogates is aiming to be highbrow; it aims more to simply be a brisk, entertaining 85-minute action/sci-fi flick. It’s certainly not as cerebral as something like Alien or even Total Recall, but it does what it does competently.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, on the other hand,  aims at exposing some universal truths about the male gender and tries for some emotional verisimilitude — a tall pinnacle it never reaches.  Rather than having a traditional narrative that builds until its rightful conclusion, the film is a collection of short scenes that create a impressionistic mess of a mosaic that never quite congeals into a natural whole. This is, presumably, precisely the point of the story: that men are all different and all unknowable in different ways. Unfortunately the execution just doesn’t work, in spite of the pedigree of its cast; having never read the book it was based on, I would wager that the movie fails because it’s too reverential of its source material.

Conversely, I had zero expectations about Surrogates and figured when I walked into the theater that it would be another throwaway September filler film.  But Jonathan Mostow sets up the world so efficiently in the first five minutes, with an opening credit sequence that is interspersed with the relevant history of how human beings came to use surrogates in a series of interviews and faux-documentary footage.  It’s actually a semi-complicated idea, but Mostow makes the world instantly accessible and easy to follow in those opening minutes.

The idea behind Brief Interviews  is a little bit easier to follow: a young woman (Julianne Nicholson gave such a marvelous performance in Jeff Lipsky’s underrated Flannel Pajamas) who is in a graduate psychology program does a series of interviews with men in order to better understand a recent break-up.  It’s a simple premise which opens the doors to a lot of potential avenues, but the main character’s motives are unclear because she is a blank canvas as a character; as a result, she is elusive and hard to relate to.  We gain a better understanding of each of the men, who are candid and open, than we do about the young woman at the center of the story, and it makes one wonder why this cipher of a woman exists in this story.

First-time director John Krasinski (excellent as Jim Halpert on The Office) obfuscates his points further by using a semi non-linear timeline that doesn’t really add muc to the film overall.  The best sequence in the film involves Dominic Cooper, who asks some controversial questions about rape and how he feels a woman can learn from the experience in a positive way.  But Krasinski shoehorns the whole story into one (great) sequence when it probably would have benefit the film to space that story out as a way of giving the film more of a cohesive narrative.

Narrative cohesion is not a problem for Surrogates, which tells the story of “surrogacy” through the eyes of a cop (Bruce Willis) whose relationship with his wife (Rosamund Pike) has suffered after the loss of their child and his wife’s addiction to using her surrogate and not leaving their apartment without it.  Willis and his partner (Radha Mitchell) are on a case to find out how it was possible that someone could murder a surrogate and how that would in turn actually murder the user of that surrogate.  How it is possible to do this is really unimportant, the futuristic taser-like device is really just the MacGuffin.  What’s interesting is that each action sequence actually drives the plot forward rather than existing just to excite and titillate, which makes the film move so quickly that you don’t notice its flaws.

The pacing of Brief Interviews, on the other hand, doesn’t do the film any favors.  It’s quite a short movie, only 80 minutes total, but the deliberate pacing of the film makes it drag noticeably. This could have been fixed by breaking up some of the monologues, but Krasinski is an actor first and he knows how much actors love to take a bite out of a nice, juicy long speech and so he does his fellow actors the favor of keeping their monologues completely intact.

Krasinski gives himself arguably the most captivating speech as the main character’s adulterous ex, but it comes towards the end of the film, and it gives us the reasons behind a breakup of a relationship that we were never attached to.  If this speech were given in the beginning of the film, it might have provided a better context for all that follows, but it still wouldn’t help the pacing problem.

It helps Surrogates to have a star like Bruce Willis, which further expedites the film’s exposition; Willis is an archetype now, occasionally giving performances in smaller films, but usually just playing some version of a character type that he created decades ago. And for a film like this, that’s a good thing because we don’t need a whole lot of set-up to understand that Willis is the hero of this film and that we should root for him. When he flies off the handle or seems put-upon, we don’t need it to be explained; we’ve seen Willis play these types of characters so many times that every facial expression is familiar.

Jonathan Mostow is a veteran by now and he knows what he’s good at.  Lots of folks love his film Breakdown, which I thought was merely passable.  But I thought his Terminator film was unfairly maligned – especially in light of how awful McG’s Terminator film was – with an excellent car chase.  His films are consistently tight and gripping and visceral, his films building logically but quickly with hardly any fat that needs to be trimmed.  With Surrogates, he did what he usually does: hit a solid double.  I think, given the right script and actors, he could hit a home run sometime soon.

With Krasinski, I’m a little unsure. I root for the guy because he seems very likable and he’s definitely charismatic as an actor. I genuinely enjoy seeing him onscreen, whether it’s in Sam Mendes’ pleasant Away We Go, Clooney’s underrated Leatherheads or the turkey known as License to Wed.  I think he’s got a bright future as an actor and he’s clearly got great taste as a filmmaker to want to adapt a David Foster Wallace book as his first film.  I think he could be a good filmmaker one day; Brief Interviews is competently filmed and edited and it serves as a showcase for a lot of great acting (Dominic Cooper, Krasinksi himself, Frankie Faison, Bobby Cannavale) and funny bits.  It’s key for him to learn from the mistakes of this film and perhaps aim his sights a little bit lower since this was an ambitious first project to take on.

Surrogates is not the type of film that will be on anybody’s top-ten list at the end of the year, but it’s a film that will give you your money’s worth and entertain you for 85 minutes.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is the type of film that potentially could have been on a top-ten list if it had hit it out of the park, but ultimately comes up short and is worth a rental somewhere down the line.  In the end, to answer that difficult question I posed at the beginning of this column, I think I would prefer a film that does what it sets out to do than a film that can’t reach the goals it sets for itself.

– Noah Forrest
October 5, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon