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.

What I think this defense misses is the fact that people are only one-dimensional until you get inside their heads. For a supposedly serious filmmaker, LaBute has an awfully narrow concept of human nature. That's why the people in Your Friends and Neighbors remain "types." They don't learn from experience, and they don't change. We don't even see what might once have attracted them to each other. They're just specimens in LaBute's insectarium.

Basically what he's saying is this: We're all crumbums and dupes. Men are unworthy of women, who are not worth it anyway. This is the way it's always been; human nature doesn't change. The rituals LaBute exposes are, in his view, the same male-female screw sessions that dramatists since the Greeks have been delineating. Only the names--or, in this case, the no-names--have changed.

By setting his movie in an upscale milieu, LaBute is implicitly condemning the middle class for having the effrontery to seek its pleasures. This is a very old game. The counterculture used to play it in the '60s; now the reactionaries have stepped up to the plate. It's not just that these friends and neighbors are scum; they're bourgeois scum. What could be worse? LaBute doesn't want to let any joy into the picture; if he did, it might expose how rigged and shallow his cynicism is. A fun couple in bed would explode his depresso thesis. No one in Your Friends and Neighbors gets any pleasure from anything. The closest approximation is when the heterosexual Cary delivers a rapt three-minute monologue to his "friends" about the intense personal fulfillment he received sodomizing a student who snitched on him in high school.

It's significant that Cary, despite all his tape-recorded warm-up sex talk, is never shown actually sleeping with anyone. What we see instead are pre- or post-coital sessions with Cary rasping at his bedmates, who are usually off-camera. For him, the rasp is the real sex. Humiliating others--his male friends as well as his women--turns him on. Cary is the most compelling character in the movie because at least he doesn't make any bones about who he is. He may get dangerously high inhaling the fumes of his own hellfire, but his radar is in fine working order: Without prompting, he catches the vibrations of discontent in his friends' bedrooms. Jason Patric, who also co-produced this film, has been a bland brooder in his other movies. Here his malevolence is all of a piece with his lethal handsomeness and square-cut jaw. When Cary moves in on Terri in a bookstore and is rebuffed, he glides back into her with such cool ferocity that it's like watching a shark attack. He's a predator.

LaBute, ironically, comes along at a time when romantic love is once again being sentimentalized onscreen. Hollywood in the feminist era never really figured out what to do with guys and gals; the solution, more often than not, was to jettison women to the fringes altogether. They became ornamental adjuncts in the male action-fantasy universe.

In the shimmer of post-feminist Hollywood, men and women are once again starting to act coy and googly-eyed around each other. You can see this in a lot of the big-studio romances, ranging from Titanic and The Mask of Zorro to even a gross-out romp like There's Something About Mary. But you also see it in the acclaimed smaller stuff, such as Sliding Doors or the just-released Next Stop Wonderland. The low-budget, "independent" sector is playing the same ga-ga game as the big leagues. We've skipped over the tensions of male-female relations in the feminist era and gone directly back to the halcyon days of "Some Day My Prince (or Princess) will Come."

With this in mind, it's easy to overvalue LaBute's funk. He comes on like a spoiler, and with his clinician's camera and killer dialogue, he certainly holds you. But he's not really going against the romantic sentimentality of the day--he's just demonstrating how awful life is without it. In a way, he's perhaps even more of a traditionalist than the Hollywood treacle-meisters. It's possible they are just dispensing their fluff as a commercial expediency, but LaBute seems genuinely horrified by the prospect of sex without love. That's why he flays his characters so mercilessly. He wants these bourgeois elites to pay for their sins. The question I have is: Who appointed this guy judge, jury, and executioner?

Your Friends and Neighbors.
Directed and written by Neil LaBute. Starring Ben Stiller, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric, Nastassja Kinski. Now playing.

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