— by BEV QUESTAD —
Say it ain’t so Tiger! Dave Letterman, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, and even our ancient hero Odysseus … infidelity and adultery are chronic age-old temptations of the susceptible ego.
Sara Quinn, played by Julianne Nicholson, is a graduate student who has been rocked by the callous, unrepentant infidelity of her boyfriend. She sublimates her reaction into a graduate study on men. Each subject in her study plies her with self-centered sociopathic reports of inter-personal detachment. Simultaneously, her professional associations also coincidentally mirror the superficial, self-involved commentaries of her subjects.
This film was based on a book by the same title by David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in September 2008. He was battling depression, and perhaps like his hideously self-centered male characters, found no fulfillment in his life.
And that’s exactly what keeps this film from being great. It does not go beyond observation. The men are heartbreakers in the grandest sense. They are existentially alone and their pain, in the realization of that, is great. But where is the fix-it? The redemption? Is it hopeless?
A climatic moment in the film is when Quinn’s student, who knows about her project and has submitted a related paper on it, tries to engage her in dialogue. Played with intense passion by Dominic Cooper, this student physically blocks her exit and asks her question after question, frustrated with her lack of response. “At least tell me why I didn’t get a higher grade!” he shouts.
Cooper is attempting to get Sara to link the suffering from infidelity, rape or other dehumanization, to Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is based on work with Holocaust victims. He tells her that a crisis can promote learning and character depth and therefore life enrichment — that suffering from a painful break-up or emotional trauma could be looked at as a good thing.
This reasoning is met with steadfast silence from the intelligent Sara. Frankl, of course, never championed, condoned or excused the actions of the Holocaust for purposes of greater self-development. Cooper, along with the other men in this candidly acted series of interviews, does not recognize that the perpetrators of heartbreaking pain cannot be released from their own suffering and separation until, with humility and contrition, they acknowledge their role in hurting others and cross the bridge into a kind of submission or surrender.
A high point in this film was the work by Timothy Hutton as Sara Quinn’s graduate adviser. Played with charismatic charm, he spontaneously delivers his candid and ultimately superficial revelation about why he still loves his wife. He asks Quinn if he is shallow. Responding in interviewer mode, Sara remains frustratingly silent.
“Brief Encounters” is never about Sara or women. This is about men who are unable to empathize. They devise slingshots — then aim and fire — obliterating random birds for whom they have no feeling. They don’t see a connection between their actions and the pain they inflict on the women who love them. And none of these men comes across as happy — most appear troubled or frustrated.
In the end, Sara’s ultimate interview is with her ex-lover, the catalyst for her study. The ex, played by the director and screenwriter, John Krasinski, gives a passionately elaborate explanation about why he was unfaithful. The viewer is impressed with his candidness and insight, but is it enough? Should Sara finally respond?
Perhaps the ability to take responsibility for their actions, recognize their human frailty and feel sorry for the pain they have caused the women who have loved them, a factor no man in this film appears capable of, is a reason Hillary and Bill, Eliot and Silda Spitzer, and John and Elizabeth Edwards are still together and why Penelope accepts and comforts her husband, Odysseus, upon his circuitous route home.
While this may not be the most entertaining date movie right now for Tiger and his wife, Elin, John Krasinki has repeated in his interviews that his film has the potential to provide some soul-searching conversations. Even though there is no example how these crippled men can change, it does give us insight into their thinking and their pain. And perhaps that is a good start for Tiger and his wife.
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