Tough love

In the Company of Men is one brutal valentine

All you heterosexual men looking for a film to see with your girlfriend, consider this a warning--Neil Labute's In the Company of Men is not a date movie.

Nor is this slow-burn indie drama a "black comedy," as some critics have dubbed it. The film could be described as a satire about ruthless corporate culture and its contamination of our romantic lives, but satires aren't always intended to trigger laughter. A satire's mission is to swell some particular vice or folly to the point where the characters' own hidden motives become the ironic needle that explodes the self-deception. Guffaws are a nice accompaniment, but are not necessary to appreciate the incisive commentary.

In the Company of Men accomplishes its bleak goals in a leisurely paced, slickly cinematic, and detached way. Debut filmmaker-screenwriter Labute confidently recounts the painful saga of two frustrated male executives who decide to relieve their free-floating disgust all over an innocent third party. A painfully shy, deaf female temp is randomly chosen as their target. With a campaign casually coordinated in bars and restrooms, these men set out to flatter, seduce, then reject their prey. Feeling neglected at both the corporation that employs them and in their personal relationships, the suit-and-tie-clad villains desire, in the words of one, "to restore some dignity to our lives."

Labute's tense psychological triangle threatens to reveal itself at every turn. Or at least you think you know what hand the filmmaker is about to play--until he pulls an unexpected card and starts the guessing game all over again. This shouldn't imply that Labute wows you with a boffo finale; although not easily predicted, the ending doesn't stampede the audience. Its power is subtle, a slow exhalation of accumulated tension rather than a last gasp of surprise. The payoff comes as a baldly honest assessment of the impact of deliberate cruelty on three people's lives. In that respect, the film honors its characters perhaps more than it does the audience, who, by the end of the movie, will probably want to see some heads roll. Consequences are effectively, if disparately, distributed among the principals.

In the Company of Men will be an endurance test for some viewers, because the persecution of the temp by the executives is laid out coolly, with no hint of outrage about these vindictive shenanigans save what the director can inspire from audiences. Unlike Nancy Savoca's underappreciated Dogfight, in which River Phoenix sets out to bring the ugliest girl to the dance and winds up in love with awkward, sincere Lili Taylor, there are no gold stars awarded for conviction in Labute's contest. The people who care the most suffer the most, a cynical lesson batted back and forth across a net that separates the film's theme--how the ruthless competition of corporate culture reflects mating rituals at their most premeditated, and vice versa.

Handsome, spiteful Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and geeky, overwhelmed Howard (Matt Malloy) are former college buddies who, in their early thirties, feel as though they're shouting into the wind professionally and romantically. Whether it's scheming interns at work looking to usurp the salaried, or fickle girlfriends at home stringing them along, the aggrieved pair feel dumped on wherever they go. Chad, whose supreme confidence exudes a stronger sociopathic stench as the film progresses, lures the unconfident Howard into the aforementioned plan. During a six-week stay at a branch office, they deluge a secretarial temp named Christine (Stacy Edwards) with flowers, meals, and flattery, intending the whole time to discard her the instant she declares her love. Trouble is, the sweet-natured Christine winds up pitting her pseudo-paramours against one another in a contest for her attention. In the end, the victor proves to be he who most successfully ignores every empathetic impulse within himself.

By making Christine not only shy but deaf, filmmaker Labute risks accusations that he's constructed a paper saint complete with courageously borne handicap, then doused her in gasoline. Much like Lars Von Trier's peculiar but compelling Breaking the Waves, where the brilliant Emily Watson played an impressionable Christian who literally whored herself in the name of God, In the Company of Men floats its heroine across storm-tossed seas on a boat we know from the outset is doomed to sink. Unlike Von Trier's jittery Calvinist riff, however, Labute never pretends to take Christine's point of view. To her credit, Edwards does what she's supposed to do--imbue the deaf temp with just the right proportions of intelligence and hope. You can never quite dismiss her as just a sitting duck, even as, helplessly, you begin to view her through the hunters' gunsights.

As the suavely evil Chad, Eckhart delivers occasionally outrageous dialogue straight-up. His disparagement of women, the hearing impaired, and racial minorities is never couched in comfortingly ironic phraseology. But as written by Labute, Chad is an animatronic misanthrope, a corporate climber whose willingness to say something bad about everybody lacks the selectivity you assume any smooth operator, however embittered, must exercise. In his more subtle moments of treachery, Eckhart's character reminded me of the handsome slimeball played by Vince Vaughn in Doug Liman's Swingers. Both are ornately decorated cookies filled with arsenic--to paraphrase Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success--it's just that Eckhart's poison would benefit from more sweet.

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