LaBute’s Perfectly Miserable Types Wage War in the Bedroom

Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors confirms our suspicions that the misanthropic cutting edge of Mr. LaBute’s first film, In the Company of Men (1997), was no passing fancy. Mr. LaBute’s disenchantment with the corporate male of the species did indeed run deep on that occasion, but the men in Your Friends and Neighbors don’t fare much better, though they don’t have a heartbreakingly vulnerable and handicapped female to kick around as their cruel counterparts did in the previous film. There is more balance though not symmetry between the sexes in Friends than there was in Men . Indeed, the women give as good or, rather, as bad as they get from the men. But who are these strange, contentious, dysfunctional creatures Mr. LaBute has created? And why does he choose such generically grandiose titles for his hurtful dissections of the human animal? If I am living in a fool’s paradise for imagining that my friends and neighbors are not at all like Mr. LaBute’s, so be it. This is not to say that his film, like its predecessor, is anything less than a masterly work of art with as accomplished an acting ensemble as you are likely to find in this year’s releases.

From its opening credits against a background of Alex Katz paintings with their coolly detached human subjects parading in a void fashioned from their own spiritual emptiness, to its last chilling shot of sex without love, exploitation without communication, a trap with no exit, Your Friends and Neighbors plows through a minefield of lies, deceptions and betrayals exploding emotionally into fragments of shattered characters and relationships. The spare, eerily unromantic score is, according to Mr. LaBute, three Metallica songs arranged and performed by four cellists from Finland called Apocalyptica. The effect is consistent with the conception of the film as a piece of postmodern chamber drama. The writer-director has deliberately avoided any exterior establishing shots. Everything transpires in apartments, museums, bookstores, college theaters, health clubs. And yet there is no sense of confinement to a stage. The inventiveness of the framing, camera movement and depth of composition is eminently cinematic as it tracks its always clearly focused characters on Mr. LaBute’s fiercely combative chessboard. No one has a last name, and no one ever calls anybody by their first name. As in the previous film, no city is specified as the locale.

With In the Company of Men it was possible for the sociologically inclined to suggest that the jungle of corporate America was to blame for the swinish behavior on display. It is not so easy in Your Friends and Neighbors , in which the characters are defined not so much by what they do as by how they maneuver in and out of the bedroom, and what they choose to say about fornication, bisexuality, masturbation and orgasm, with or without conversation. Dysfunction in one form or another is the order of the day and night. Frankness and full disclosure in this context become the enemies of eroticism.

Jason Patric and Aaron Eckhart have been cast-with their enthusiastic approval-conspicuously against type. After a career of playing sensitive and vulnerable male heroes, Mr. Patric has taken on the role of the narcissistically hard-edged Cary, and Mr. Eckhart has altered his womanizing good looks and physique to be more convincing in the part of the cluelessly cuckolded Barry. Ben Stiller once more displays his versatility as the unhappily coupled Jerry, a self-deceiving snake in the grass who initiates the cycle of betrayal by making a play for his best friend’s wife (Amy Brenneman) in the midst of a supposedly convivial double date in the targeted wife’s apartment. What happens next does not result in a farcical free-for-all, but rather in a grim form of libidinous gridlock. The well is poisoned, and the laughs come with great difficulty.

Everyone works, more or less. Ms. Brenneman’s much-abused Mary is a freelance something or other; her husband Barry is vaguely in finance; Catherine Keener’s adaptably bisexual Terri, live-in girlfriend of Mr. Stiller’s Jerry, is an ad writer for tampons; Nastassja Kinski’s lesbian temptress is an artist’s “assistant,” the prescribed 90’s terminology for a secretary putting on airs; Mr. Stiller’s Jerry is a college drama teacher for whom the lies of art run a poor second to the lies of life, and Mr. Patric’s Cary works somewhere in the non-idealistic field of medicine.

There is a pointed reference to the Restoration dramatist William Wycherley (1640-1716), and a fleeting glimpse of a movie poster of Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Le Mépris ( Contempt ). Indeed, a thrice-repeated ritualized pickup scene in front of an unseen painting tempts one to label the film as neo-Godardian, or at least neo-Hartleyan. Comparisons have been made also with the dramatic writings of David Mamet and with Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffer’s Carnal Knowledge (1971). Yet Mr. LaBute is not quite as lyrically eclectic as Mr. Godard, nor as laconically hostile as Mr. Mamet and his mentor, Harold Pinter, nor as luridly antibourgeois as Mr. Nichols and Mr. Feiffer.

After watching In the Company of Men , I remarked that Mr. LaBute might be able to get by without a heart. But in his second film I can find traces of perceptive compassion that make me eager to see what an artist of Mr. LaBute’s demonstrated talent and ambition will do next.

Less Biting, But Just as Highly Recommended

F. Gary Gray’s The Negotiator , from a screenplay by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, would seem to be too ear-shatteringly pulpy to be mentioned in the same breath as Mr. LaBute’s Sundance-sanctioned insolence toward supposedly sure-fire blockbuster formulas. Yet, amid all the contemporary chic blather about the inability of people to communicate with each other, I found it exhilarating to see and hear two fine actors like Samuel Jackson and Kevin Spacey communicating with each other like mad, and deriving great pleasure and mutual respect from their high-pressure articulate exchanges. The characters they play are both professional police negotiators in hazardous hostage situations. Significantly, the one thing they don’t talk about is sex, and perhaps that makes all the difference.

While I’m in the mood for dialectical comparisons, I’d like to recommend two charming French films with opposing conclusions about art versus life and fantasy versus reality. On the side of art and fantasy is J.J. Bigas Luna’s The Chambermaid on the Titanic , which starts slowly in a dreary French industrial town out of Emile Zola’s Germinal in which the company sponsors a brutally demanding race up and down a hill of sludge for an unspecified prize. Olivier Martinez plays the pathetic wretch who somehow survives the grueling contest to come in first. The boss announces the reward: one ticket to Southampton with hotel expenses included to witness the sailing of the Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912, without Leonardo DiCaprio aboard. Since the winner is married to a character played by Romane Bohringer, he naturally wants to take his wife along, but the boss lies that there is only money for one ticket because he wants to make time with the wife while the husband is away.

In Southampton, a woman claiming to be a chambermaid (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) asks to share the hero’s room because the hotel is full. The hero reluctantly agrees. Nothing “happens” that night, but when the hero returns home he is greeted by malicious gossip about his wife and the boss, and despite her honest denials, he becomes so enraged that he begins recounting an imaginary affair he had with the “chambermaid” with such detail that he convinces his barroom buddies (and, after a while, even himself) that the liaison actually took place. When the sinking of the Titanic is reported, his story takes on even more poignant overtones, and the hero becomes a highly paid theatrical performer, and his wife, a little jealous even after her husband convinces her that he has made the whole story up from his romantic imagination, plays the supporting role of the doomed chambermaid in the theatrical spectacles. Then the real “chambermaid” shows up and is revealed as a prostitute who never sailed on the Titanic . Yet in the end even she buys into the fantasy.

In contrast is the hero of Tony Gatlif’s Gadjo Dilo , a young Parisian named Stéphane, played by Romain Duris, who journeys all the way to Romania to locate a gypsy singer much admired by his late father. He carries with him cassettes of her recorded songs. Though he never finds her despite an extensive search, he becomes enraptured by the sheer buoyancy of gypsy life and music despite all the sadness and persecution these people must endure. In the end, he smashes the cassette and assumes a gypsy identity, no longer wishing to be a “gadjo dilo,” or a “crazy outsider” in Romania. He embraces reality at the expense of the long-sought-after illusion. Mr. Gatlif has devoted a great deal of his film career in a frank championing of the indomitable and enduring Gypsy culture that has survived bigots from Adolf Hitler to Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Finally, there’s Manuel Poirier’s Western , the title of which refers to Brittany, the westernmost prong of the glorious hexagon that is France. Two immigrants, a Spanish shoe salesman and an Italian from Russia, join forces in a seriocomic circular odyssey in search of ever elusive love and sex with a succession of tantalizing females. It is to laugh and almost cry.

LaBute’s Perfectly Miserable Types Wage War in the Bedroom