Hellfire

In his follow-up to In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute rigs the game again

As the lights came up after a screening of the new Neil LaBute movie Your Friends and Neighbors, a colleague next to me growled disapprovingly, "That was a nasty movie." For LaBute--whose divisive debut film, In the Company of Men, is probably the worst date movie ever made--this comment would no doubt come as the highest praise. He's the kind of writer-director who doesn't think he's giving us a good time unless he's making us squirm. He has a horror filmmaker's mind-set--except LaBute doesn't resort to bloodletting. He does it all with words. He wants to make our skin crawl by demonstrating how morally depraved people can be.

But the funny thing about this prince of darkness is that he's really a softy. Beneath all his men-and-women-behaving-badly scenarios beats the bleeding heart of an innocent who can't bear the bad news. He's aghast at the ugliness of the species, which, given how much ugliness is out there in plain view, makes him a bit of a johnny-come-lately. Despite all his hoo-ha, there's something ho-hum about LaBute's amazement at what people are capable of doing to each other. I mean, what else is new? In Your Friends and Neighbors, he's having a high old time giving himself the creeps. For the rest of us it's all kind of...well...nasty.

LaBute is fond of saying that the people in his movies are representative only of themselves--that no larger sociological implication should be extracted. But clearly this is a coy ploy. In the Company of Men was about two corporate players who set out to woo a deaf mute employee in order to unceremoniously dump her as vengeance against all women. In Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute is once again scourging upscale urbanites. There's something unseemly about the way he goes after this crowd. He may be throwing rabbit punches, but behind them is an Old Testament wrath. The wrath is way out of proportion to the target.

Jerry (Ben Stiller), for example, is a nerdy college drama professor who is miserably cohabitating with Terri (Catherine Keener), a shrew who makes her living writing ad copy for such products as tampon cartons. We are first introduced to this couple in the throes of passion--his passion, at any rate. Terri can't stand his play-by-play vocalizing and, in mid-hump, tells him so. (She's right; he does talk too much.) Terri just wants to get down. Maybe she doesn't even want that. "It's not a time for sharing," she says. Thanks for sharing.

Then there's our other fun couple, Mary (Amy Brenneman), a journalist, and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), who works in some unspecified white-collar managerial job. As with Jerry and Terri, we first see them in bed. (LaBute is big on these plot parallelisms, as if to demonstrate that human behavior is as quantifiable as a theorem.) Barry is depicted as a big lug in the bedroom; Mary, wordless and unsatisfied, is a big mope. He ends up making love with his favorite partner--his hand.

Cary (Jason Patric), a bachelor and also--God help us--an obstetrician, is first introduced to us as he tape-records his own sex talk while doing sit-ups in his sleek apartment. He's rehearsing his Lothario spiel for his bedmates, but the real object of his lust is clearly himself. He's as autoerotic as Barry--a stud whinnying in his own stable.

LaBute intersects the lives of these people in a flat, diagrammatic style that is part Carnal Knowledge, part David Mamet, part Geometry 1A. Barry and Cary are buddies--at least in the LaBute manner, which means they're comfortable enough around each other to share dirty confidences. Jerry is a friend with them too, but he doesn't trust Cary, and he initiates a tryst with Mary. Needless to say, the tryst fizzles--Jerry pouts and apologizes and Mary goes into her mope. Terri, meanwhile, initiates with considerably more success her own affair, with Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), an art gallery assistant.

Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary, Jerry--all these rhyming names. LaBute wants to lump them all together in order to mow them down. Actually, these names appear only on the credits. In the movie, no one is addressed by name--for that "anonymous," archetypal effect. Unidentified, these people could be anybody, even you. The city in which the movie takes place is also unidentified, no doubt for the same reasons. In general, LaBute does his best to strip his characters and their environment of any specifying traits. No one has any kids, parents, or family that we can see; no other friends, or neighbors, intrude. Their jobs are, at best, sketched in. In any given scene LaBute never allows more than three or four players to be seen or heard, and he films the monologues and dialogues very close-in--for that clinical, depersonalized effect. But it's no great feat to depersonalize people if you eliminate most of what makes them human. LaBute stacks the deck: He wants to demonstrate how maggoty everybody is, and he does so by showing us only characters with sex on the brain.

There are bound to be people who will argue that the film makes us uncomfortable because it exposes the beastliness beneath our civilized middle-classed veneer. The film is nasty because it's true. Our lives really are all about sex. We're more scuzzily one-dimensional than we'd like to admit.

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