Men (and Women) Behaving Badly

The neurotic tango we call the mating game gets a high colonic in Your Friends and Neighbors , a second feature film by writer-director Neil LaBute, controversial creator of In the Company of Men . Dissecting intimate relationships is his primary focus, and he does it with a cynicism that can leave you suicidal with depression. Still, there’s something truthful, unsparing and visionary about his immorality tales that is rare in contemporary films. You feel contaminated, but at least you go away feeling something.

Mr. LaBute’s words are bludgeons, and few of his characters survive their blows. The language is crude and wounding as six thirtysomethings, their emotions short-circuited, select new victims from a menu of already proven failures–their friends. In the Company of Men showed the darker side of corporate Size 39 Regulars as they set about to destroy a vulnerable, hearing-impaired woman. In Your Friends and Neighbors , everyone’s a conquest, and they’re all defective, deceitful and deluded. Aaron Eckhart, the sun-kissed smiling cobra from the first film, does a 180-degree about-face in this one. He’s dyed his hair blond, grown a mustache and gained about 40 pounds of gut for his role as Barry, an impotent, miserable, cuckolded husband who is blocked completely and fast losing control of his job, home and friendships. What an actor! Mr. Eckhart makes you believe every facet of his messy panic. Believe him? Hell, you know him. He works in your office, sweats in your gym and stinks up your elevator. Barry is one of your friends and neighbors.

His pals may look slimmer, but they’re just as demoralized by their relationships. Jerry (Ben Stiller) is a drama professor, a secretive, dishonest liar, and so overly analytical he ends up boring his women by talking too much in bed. Then there’s Cary (Jason Patric), their handsome, angry, cruel and enviably unattached locker-room buddy. Cary is a closet homosexual who uses women sexually to aggressively activate his revenge motives against society. His darker side is darker than they ever suspected.

Barry’s wife Mary (Amy Brenneman) is so unhappy and desperate for a baby her impotent husband can’t give her that she strays from bed to bed, first with Jerry, then Cary, driving her husband even deeper into a tunnel of insecurity and wrecking both of their lives. Meanwhile, Jerry’s live-in partner Terri (Catherine Keener) is so tough and emotionally barren she insults him, strands him, and moves on to a lesbian affair with Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a strange, childlike woman who works in an art gallery. In the beginning, they’re all involved but incompatible, looking for something in their friends’ relationships that is missing in their own. In the trenches of urban sexual warfare, they expand their sexual parameters, find outside sources of energy to alleviate their confusion and ennui, and make major changes. But in the end, they’ re just as anxiety-riddled and unfulfilled as they were at the start.

The point of Your Friends and Neighbors is that some people are doomed to repeat their mistakes and have the same relationships all over again with different partners. The men are not as macho as they long to be, the women are anything but user-friendly, and Mr. LaBute seems to be saying, with dialogue that stings and bleeds, “Confront your neuroses first–then it’s easier to have a genuinely miserable time later on.”

This frank, brutally direct microcosm of oversexed yuppies experiencing the ephemeral, unpredictable, ever-changing nature of relationships is a bitter dose of 90’s nihilism, not unlike In the Company of Men but not as good, either. It doesn’t really go anywhere, you don’t give a flying fuck about anybody in it, and it desperately lacks the kind of shocking “Oh, no!” twist at the end that made In the Company of Men so clever and forgivable. The only similarity is Jason Patric’s character, who is very much like the charismatic villain Aaron Eckhart played in the earlier film. This hateful stud is the most interesting, alluring and mean-spirited lout on the screen–a buffed Gentleman’s Quarterly cover boy capable of hurting people without the slightest moral conscience while hiding behind oceans of beauty and charm. Talk about the ultimate survivor!

Flawed and depressing, Your Friends and Neighbors isn’t your conventional big-city love story. But it is still a skillful piece of work that holds a mirror to the way we live now, and the ensemble playing the attractive cast is dynamic. Neil LaBute knows how to turn his camera on people in tight, claustrophobic spaces, without much staging, and watch them squirm. The controversy continues.

More Friends in Need, Soldiers, Singles

Here are some thoughts on other films jockeying for attention in August–when I will be on a well-earned sabbatical. In the harrowing Return to Paradise , three randy chuckleheads on a tour of Southeast Asia party till they run out of girls, rum and cheap hash. Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) stagger back home to New York, stashing their leftover drugs with Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), a hippie who stays behind in Malaysia. Two years later, an attorney (Anne Heche) informs them their pal has been imprisoned on a drug charge for which all three guys are responsible and unless they return to share his sentence, Lewis will be hanged in eight days.

Tony, who is engaged to be married and has begun a successful career, is the one with the conscience, while Sheriff, who’s a limo driver, says No way. It’s up to Ms. Heche (excellent as she balances her duty with a secret agenda, and very fetching in the love scenes with Mr. Vaughn) to get them both back to that ghastly third world prison in Penang. Much tragedy and strife ensue in a cautionary tale that explores every angle of a moral dilemma and redefines the boundaries of friendship, loyalty, and love. Shades of Midnight Express , but less depth, while pandering to the audience’s worst instincts with head-banging shamelessness.

A war epic played out in the battlefields of the human mind, Regeneration is a wonderful British import based on actual people and events in a military hospital in Scotland in 1917. Coming on the heels of Saving Private Ryan , it’s a nice companion piece that further explores the devastating effects of war on soldiers who see firsthand combat, and proves all wars are the same when it comes to the madness of men who will never recover. Brilliantly directed by Gillies MacKinnon, Regeneration opens with an aerial shot of a gray, mud-splattered landscape littered with corpses and moves on to Edinburgh, where a sensitive, caring doctor (Jonathan Pryce) hovers on the edge of his own nervous breakdown, trying to mend the crumbling minds of his shattered patients. Among them is the famous British poet Siegfried Sassoon (intelligently played by James Wilby), a noble and decorated war hero who has been wrongfully incarcerated because he has thrown away his military cross, breaking all regulations, and published an outspoken, illegal antiwar pamphlet protesting the cruelty and stupidity of a war he considers immoral. Though totally sane, he’s been ordered to an asylum for repatriation. The film centers on the doctor’s private suffering as he is forced to “cure” the writer’s implacable point of view and consider the repercussions of his actions. The humanity and compassion of his treatment is greeted with scorn by other doctors who inflict more painful electric shock treatments to get faster results. The film also illuminates Sassoon’s influence on two other patients–Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bruce), whose insecurity was transformed by Sassoon’s support and encouragement, inspiring him to write what is now regarded as the finest poetry to emerge from World War I, and Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller), an officer who has been rendered mute by the horrors he’s endured. Superb performances, literate writing and temperate direction add resonance and texture to a film of ideas and human conflicts that leaves you moved and enlightened.

First Love, Last Rites is a numbing bore that will just leave you Novocained. This low-budget freak show gives independent filmmaking a bad name. In a filthy one-room shack on stilts in the middle of a Louisiana bayou, two borderline schizophrenics spend a boiling, pointless summer rutting like raccoons. Natasha Gregson Wagner–an actress with real potential who makes more time-wasting career mistakes than any fledgling starlet of her generation–is Sissel, a near-catatonic swamp waif with no skills, ambition or motivation, and Giovanni Ribisi is Joey, a displaced Brooklyn drifter who seems brain-dead. She’s so nuts that she steals away to a cemetery in the middle of the night, sits on a tombstone, and holds aluminum foil up to her face so she can get a tan from the moon. When her toes itch, she burns them with lighted matches. Sometimes she boils her old 45 r.p.m. phonograph records in a pot on the stove. Together they crawl around naked, listening for a giant rat under the floor while she eats Chinese takeout and paints his fingernails green. Fueled by sudden economic necessity, he traps and peddles eels nobody wants to buy.

Finally the big scene arrives when they bash the rat to death as the audience heads for the exit doors. So much for action. “You wanna stick a baby in me so you can dangle it in front of me, like a carrot!” she screams. So much for dialogue. It isn’t clear if Jesse Peretz, the first-time director, can tell a story coherently, but it’s a sure bet David Ryan, the writer, can’t write one. Some good Samaritan should do them all a big favor and burn the negative.