Rating: 2.5 out of 4
It was difficult for me to picture the motives of the two yuppie junior executives Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy). They are unhappy with their jobs because they seem always to be passed over when promotions are made . . . and they are angry at the world. So far, that is understandable. What is not so readily understood is the absolute meanness, perversity in the suggestion by Chad that he and his friend find a woman who needs love and friendship, overwhelm, her with kindness . . . and then drop her like a bomb from on high.
True, they both have lately been having girl trouble but their prime anger seems to be with their employment . . . and it a far cry from that to the obscene undertaking they engage in with a pretty woman, Christine (Stacy Edwards), a secretary. What kind of misogynist bastards are they? How are we supposed to understand, to relate to these two brutes? What possesses someone to think up such a vile trick and what allows another to go along with it?
Christine is dated by both men. While she falls madly in love with Chad, she has strong feelings for Howard as well. Why not? They treat her as if she were the most desirable woman on Earth. With her disability of being mute, able only to speak in a strange voice, this very pretty woman is vulnerable to anyone who will shower her with attention.
At some point, she is told by Chad that he will no longer see her. No reason. Just a metaphoric slam in the face. When Howard later confesses to her that he, too, is in on it, that it is only a gag, I wanted to throw things at the screen. A controversial film? You bet it is.
Fine acting, good dialogue, keep the film alive and worth seeing . . . but be prepared to hate a couple of rats.
Rating: *** 1/3 [3.33 out of 4 stars]
You don't need special effects or the supernatural to make a horror movie. "In the Company of Men" is perhaps he most horrifying film of the year, yet it's all done with naturalism, minimalism and three main characters in "real" though anonymous sets.
The plot is diabolically simple. Ten years out of college, two old classmates work for an unspecified firm's headquarters in an unspecified city as junior or middle executives. We meet them in an airport lounge, one of those bland, anonymouss, faceless spaces where business people can be found. The anonymity applies throughout to buildings, offices, cubicles, restaurants, etc., not to mention dark suits and white shirts. One of the men is Chad, who looks like one of those cookie-cutter ex-Joe College "boys" that some people go for --but then some people also go for Joe Camel. The other is Howard, shorter, vaguely nerdy-ish, wearing glasses. He outranks Chad in the firm.
They are waiting for the plane to take them for a six-week stay at a branch of their outfit, in a non-specified city. (F.y.i. the end credits thank Fort Wayne, Indiana). Howard is nursing an ear bitten, it would seem, by his now alienated fiancee (or perhaps wife). The movie does have the nasty habit of trying to be so coyly generic, in the special sense of "this can apply to anyone, anywhere," that it can get counterproductive. It distracts the viewer by holding back bits that, if given, would not have tainted the "purity" of the script.
Chad is a misanthrope, a hater of everything he can name, from the machinations of the world of business to his stab-you-in-the back colleagues to ...you name it. He is also someone who seems to think of himself as a Don Juan, and is a misogynist seducer. (That's no contradiction by many interpretations of Don Juan). Right now, he is seething because it would appear (note how prudently I phrase this) that his current girl friend has jilted him.
At the airport and on the plane, working himself up to a sickly level of fury, he hatches a plan and enlists the less polemical Howard's collaboration. To take their revenge on women, they should cast around for a good subject during their six-week tour of duty, both of them seduce her, then discard her. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week and you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men." This is like extermination camp talk by the SS.
Howard, albeit less sanguine, goes along. At the new work-place, their victim is spotted: Christine, a pretty temp typist who has been deaf since age eight but can speak haltingly, slowly, with those special intonations of deaf persons.
The men go to work on her, dating her without letting her know that they are colleagues. Chad turns on the charm, or what passes for charm, while ridiculing the woman's speech to his buddy. Awkward Howard is more polite about her yet at first shows subtle lechery. After he has complimented Christine on her looks, heating her say she has a sister, he knee-jerkily pops the question: "You have any pictures?"
Back at the office, it's all friendly talk with miscellaneous colleagues and badmouthing the same as soon as they're out of the room. Politics reign. Hypocrisy and insecurity reach Mach 3. Sexist jokes abound. Cruelty to man and women is the order of the day (and the week, and the years). To put it simply, the two men are crude,callous louts. Could many other men be far behind?
The movie is the first film effort by Neil LaBut, a known playwright. In an interview he has made some statements that prove to me how differently creators and critics can interpret things. "The film has a lot of laughs." I didn't see any, riveted as I was by the nastiness on the screen. "Then the situation turns vicious. I love the idea of pulling people in and turning on them. For instance, seducing them into thinking that Chad is amusing and even charming, only to leave them shocked when they discover later just how much of a viper he really is." I can't see this. Chad is a sickening fellow from the start. You don't have to wait for him to humiliate a black trainee, or to cheat in business matters on his pal Howard to realize this.
The film's structure calls for seven divisions, from Week One through Week Six, plus A Few Weeks Later. Each section fades to black and the next one is announced by aggressive, ominous, indeed scary drum beats. The camera remains mostly static, with shots that often distance us from the subjects. This may be partly the result of a tiny budget of $25,000, if you believe the information, which one should generally not do with low-cost independent productions, since the smaller the sum announced the more admiration is engendered. But there is also a stage strategy, Brechtian perhaps, to keep the villains at arm's length.
As the seductions or tentative relationships proceed, there is much ambiguity about who may be sincere or not, and there develops definitely an unforeseen situation which leads the men to lie to each other.
More, I will not reveal, but take my word for it, it is very well handled and, as the trend goes of late, without real closure. It was a hit at the last Sundance Festival, even as many hated its characters, although the news of "very controversial" seem like hype for the more logical "very discussed."
The casting and acting by the lead thespians, not big names but experienced, is superior. Stacy Edwards, who is not deaf, gives a terrific, tour-de-force performance, quiet and entirely convincing
I am a bit confused by the penultimate sequence, when the now demoted (courtesy of his buddy) Howard visits Chad in his new apartment and where something to do with decamped girl friend Suzanne comes up. But setting aside iffy spots, the movie is a powerful indictment of certain men and above all of the mentality that our cutthroat world generates within a corporate society (note the word "company" in the title) where the goal, from Academe to Politics to Zoos, is "get there, keep the job and climb the ladder, no matter how." That's the sad story, not of Chad and Howard, but more generally of Calvin Coolidge's dictum " The business of America is business."
One of the most obnoxious moviegoers I have ever had the displeasure to share a theater with was sitting right behind me when I went to see In the Company of Men (starring Aaron Eckhart, Matt Molloy, and Stacy Edwards). This annoying woman started off by unpacking a picnic lunch, of which each morsel was wrapped in the crinkliest plastic invented by humans. When she was finished inhaling her food, she began hacking a phlegmy cough into my ears. When she quieted down at last, I thought she was finally settled -- and she was: she was snoring, quite loudly. Later, after her nap, she had the audacity to shush someone beside her.
As infuriating as this woman was, she wasn't anywhere near as mysterious as the rest of the audience.
In the Company of Men is one of the most difficult movies I have ever sat through. Chad (Eckhart) has got to be the most conscience-less character ever depicted on film who wasn't wearing a swastika on his sleeve. This is a man whose only pleasure in life, it seems, is inflicting humiliation on everyone around him: friends, coworkers, girlfriends. He has not one redeeming quality, no inkling of charm, nothing the viewer can latch onto to empathize with him in any way. After he emotionally tortures his victims, he taunts them with "How do you feel right now?" He is cruel and nasty and does not get the comeuppance he so richly deserves.
This is a brilliant film, but I found it very hard to watch. Chad spends the movie sandblasting the sympathetic Howard and Christine down to raw nothings, and I squirmed in my seat the whole time. And the audience around me was laughing. Laughing.
The action of In the Company of Men is played without irony, completely straightforward. Chad is all too believable a character -- there is nothing ridiculous or over-the-top about him. So I can't figure out why people were reacting so inappropriately. Was it uncomfortable, nervous laughter? Did the audience not know how to react to the kind of unrepentant cruelty they were witnessing?
Rating: ** 1/4 [2.25 out of 4]
"IN THE COMPANY of Men" is an independent film so enamored of itself it refuses to have any fun.
There's much to admire about the writing-directing debut of playwright Neil LaBute, about a pair of corporate ladder-climbers who, tired of getting passed over for promotion and kicked out by their girlfriends, decide to exact revenge on humanity in general by ruining the emotional stability of a sweet, innocent deaf woman.
It is sharply written, dark and unafraid of making an audience feel uncomfortable, and won the best dramatic feature award at Sundance. LaBute also resists the current indie film vogue of moving the camera any which way and every which way to announce (loudly) an auteur's debut in the proverbial "dazzling tour de force" fashion (lately, audiences have been dazzled and toured and forced quite into submission).
Instead, his static camera, with images given a loving, stark glow by cinematographer Tony Hettinger, delivers long take after long take, yet despite LaBute's theatrical roots it still is cinematic.
Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is tall, devilishly handsome and spiteful of anyone who crosses his path. He's smooth and slick; he'll kiss up to a co-worker, then make vicious sport of the fellow when he leaves the room.
His friend Howard (Matt Malloy) is a meek lower-rung executive who has an inferiority complex. They are unlikely pals - but they attended college together some years back, and that is their bond.
Their victim, Christine (Stacy Edwards) is a typing clerk at the no-name Midwestern firm (LaBute strips the psychological power-play to the bare bones by not even revealing what business the firm is in, or where exactly it's located. The actual filming took place in Fort Wayne, Ind., where LaBute resides).
Predictably, Chad makes fun of Christine's
"dolphin-like" speech patterns, while Howard has less of a stomach for the plan as it progresses.
Yes, "In the Company of Men" is in bad taste, and it makes no apologies for it. The success of the film hinges upon our reading in our own morality into the proceedings, and that works to a degree.
But his insistence on the stark rendering of the material undermines his twist ending. And reading our own morality into it only works to a certain point.
The end is supposed to make us giddy with a plot well spun; instead, it leaves us flat.
Rating: **** [4 out of 4 stars]
His philosophy. "Never lose control - - that is the total key to the universe". His outlook on women. "I don't trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn't die". His idea. "Let's hurt somebody". Meet Chad, an attractive, glib young man who manipulates others with surgical efficiency. His name couldn't be more appropriate, conjuring up images of All-American good looks and slick superficiality. A wolf in preppie's clothing, Chad has charisma and knows exactly how to best utilize it to further his ruthless agenda. And if he destroys some people along the way, well...good!
"In The Company Of Men", the debut feature by Fort Wayne writer-director Neil LaBute, is a stark, nasty little tale of competition, power and cruelty. Corporate climbers Chad and Howard are sent to a small Midwestern town for a six-week assignment. Both men are filled with anger, at their company for farming them out and promoting younger men ahead of them, and at women, for dumping them. Smiling at his toady colleague, Chad lays out a plan to ease their pain. During the six-week stay, the men will find a suitable victim, carefully build dual romantic relationships with her, then break her heart just before skipping town. "Trust me", Chad purrs, "she'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and we will laugh about this until we are very old men". Initially startled by the coldness of the plan, Howard agrees to participate. The men select a deaf receptionist as their prey, and the game is afoot.
LaBute's ultra low-budget feature, filmed for less than $25,000, created a sensation across the country. Despite winning an award at the Sundance Festival, it was one of the last films to find a distributor, thanks to executives skittish over the staggering misogyny of the lead characters. Sony Pictures Classic finally picked up the film, which has garnered some of the best reviews of the year.
"In The Company Of Men" is shocking, but the central conceit is nothing new. During the 60's, many of the frothy Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies were built around the idea of men deceiving women to meet their own ends. One of the subplots of last years "Everybody Says I Love You" focused on Woody Allen building a romance with Julia Roberts based totally on deceit.
What makes "In The Company Of Men" different isn't the premise. It's not even the brazenness of the plan. "In The Company Of Men" shocks because of the sustained cruelty of Chad and his utter lack of remorse. As Chad, 29 year-old Aaron Eckhart is mesmerizing, a reptile with a broad smile and GQ good looks. He is one of the best villains in recent memory, the epitome of the corporate world's dark underbelly. He amuses his cohorts by thumbing through a company magazine and pronouncing his hatred for the various executives therein. He casually humiliates a young intern, bullying the man into pulling down his pants ("You got the balls for this? Well, show me those clankers") then smirking and sending him off to fetch some coffee. But he reserves his worst for Christine, the deaf receptionist, wooing her with new-age sensitive-guy shtick, while mocking her disabilities behind her back.
While Chad is the bold Nazi, Howard functions as the "good German soldier", cooperating with the plan even as he develops real affection for Christine. As the mealy-mouthed Howard, Matt Malloy paints a disturbing portrait of what a person can turn into when he lacks focus and courage of heart. Howard appears a bit sympathetic initially, but ultimately his uncertain stumbling approach does as much damage as Chad.
Stacy Edwards is exceptional as Christine, investing the character with enough strength to keep her from appearing to be a mere victim, and enough nuance to keep her from looking like a saint. Edwards, who is not- deaf, manages to capture the unique vocal inflection of a deaf person without overdoing it.
Neil LaBute is a playwright and "In The Company Of Men" is very a stagy piece of work. LaBute uses the camera in a static fashion that invites the audience to examine the characters as if they were animals in a zoo. The result is effective, though one questions whether it was deliberate or simply the mark of a first-time director.
While "In The Company Of Men" deals with misogyny, the real focus of the film is the competition between Chad and Howard for power, personal and corporate. The story is extreme, but the message is clear. If never losing control becomes your mantra, the only thing you'll end up in touch with is your own inner Chad.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
In the Company of Men(SE)/B+,B
A fascinating low budget debut by writer/director Neil LaBute. This very nasty tale told with a perverse relish takes place in the office corridors of big business, where people are easily sacrificed to ambition.
When transferred on special assignment from their company, two young executives make a pact to "get even with women." for the bad treatment they have supposedly received. The proposal comes from Chad after listening to Howard lament about being dumped by his girlfriend. Chad, a rung lower on the company's totem pole than Howard, relates that his woman has recently moved out on him.
Once settled into their temporary business assignment, Chad finds the perfect subject for their experimental torture, a deaf secretary. Both Chad and Howard will woo the girl, divide her affections, play with her until she falls for one over the other and then drop the big revenge bomb. Chad is as nasty as a jagged shard of broken glass while Howard is too weak to resist the temptation to be more like than energetic and better looking Chad.
Shot by LaBute is a naturalistic style on a tight schedule, there is an intimacy about the film, almost making the audience an accomplice in the nastiness. The deed and the filmmaking are both down and dirty.
LaBute works very well with his three principal actors. Aaron Eckhart gives Chad an icy edge. He's an attractive villain that you never like. Howard as played by Matt Malloy is almost a victim. Malloy makes you feel Howard's hesitation at every step. The remarkable performance is by Stacy Edwards as dead secretary Christine. Not only is she a very sympathetic character, Edwards is so on target it's hard to believe that she herself does not suffer from deafness. It's interesting to watch her character change as the plot thickens and her realization in the car in confrontation with Matt is nothing short of brilliant.
The DVD transfer is limited by the source material. With a miniscule budget(supposed $25,000)and a break-neck schedule, the look of the film suffers. It's not always perfectly sharp, but I tend to fault the source material. There is some excess grain and colors lack pop. The sound is just fine. Columbia has delivered In the Company of Men as a special edition featuring two commentary tracks by cast and crew. Everyone seems to have a lot of fun with the commentary and having so many principals involved keeps the chat lively and informative.
Rating: **** [4 out of 4 stars]
This film has gotta be seen to be believed. It's just so darn riveting and shocking! It's unlike anything you've ever seen. It's basically one big conversation piece, but it's so much more. It's the kind of film that really makes you think and turns you upside down.
Chad and Howard are businessmen. They first met at university, and now they're working together on a really important project that could change their careers. These guys have ambition, and they have to be tough to get what they want. If it means acting like jerks, well, that's that. But like practically all males, they have a weakness: women. They'd sure like to control them as well, but they didn't get to do that so far. In fact, they just got out of screwy relationships in which their gals left with the hand. Yeah, these badass dudes were dumped. And man, they aren't gonna accept that. They decide to get even with the opposite sex by crushing one of them, real bad. Their plan is to both date a cute deaf girl from the office and then dump her at the same time so she understands how it feels to be rejected. Yet, there's something they didn't expect: what if it was harder than they thought to be cold-hearted?
This is Neil Labute's first feature film, and man, is it extremely good. It's really well written: the characters are memorable, the dialogue is sharp and the plot is involving. The film is filled with rage and misanthropy. You could say that it's about how men try to downsize their emotions by being jerks. this is all fascinating. At first, the duo's game seems enjoyable, but it soon becomes gut wrenching, especially towards the end. Labute is also a brilliant director. The film is simple and economically made, so it's astonishing how Labute did so much with so little. His film revolves around three characters, in just a few everyday settings, yet it's gripping from start to end.
The cast is excellent, especially Aaron Eckhart, who plays Chad, definitively one of the scummiest characters ever seen on screen. Okay, he ain't no serial killer, but what makes him horrifying is that he's just a regular guy, just like all these other suits you see on the street. Eckhart is awfully mean, but he's still funny and almost likable. That's the worst. He does everything to make you hate him, yet he still has that weir charisma. It really takes an exceptional actor to pull that off, and Eckhart does it magnificently. This is truly a unique, unforgettable film. Chilling, I tell you...
Hold onto your seats, ladies and gentlemen, for the bulk of In The Company of Men involves two young healthy white-collar workers torturing a handicapped woman.
You might look for relief in the fact that the said torture is purely mental - but you won't find it there. Martin Scorsese had said about his classy period piece The Age of Innocence that it was his most violent movie, and this case is similar.
The plot of In the Company of Men is as as geometrically spare as the visual style the movie employs. Two mid-level office workers, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), working for an unspecific company, travel to an unspecific city on a six-week business trip. Both were recently dumped by their significant others and feeling bitter towards women in general. So they develop a plan: find a lonely, fragile, sensitive, and available woman (all in one package); seduce her (compliments, flowers, small talk, dinners, sex, etc.) and, when the six weeks are over, rudely dump her. They easily find such a woman in Christine (Stacy Edwards), a lonely secretary who also happens to be deaf.
By the time this is established (in the first fifteen minutes or so), the female halves of couples in the audience are looking at their dates with apprehension slowly turning into disgust. However, it should be made clear that this movie is not about men being cruel to women. It's not about men being cruel to men, either (although there are numerous instances of this as well), it's about people being cruel to other people. It is not an accident that the two protagonists are office workers, belonging to the titular "company." It's the workplace ethos of gossip, backstabbing, and demonstrating your superiority in order to survive that made Chad and Howard into what they are. Simply put, it's a Darwinian world out there.
Not that the movie limits itself to exploring this issue (by the way, the phrase "explore the issue" is as much of a cliche as Chad saying to Christine "I want to nurture this relationship and see it blossom"). The ending pulls the rug from under our feet again, and shows that the movie was about something completely different altogether. When we see how these people treat each other, the effect is chilling; when we see the results of such treatment, it's shattering.
Now, I hear the voices saying "Gee, sounds like a fun movie." Well, yes, it is, from one point of view. The acting is impeccable (we know a lot about two main characters before they even speak a single word), the dialogue is sparkling, and the story has a few unexpected plot twists.
On the other hand, it is hardly original. Chad's brilliant seducer is just an updated version of Vicomte De Valmont (there's quite a few similarities with Les Liaisons Dangereuses as well as The Age of Innocence), and the ending echoes La Dolce Vita.
The biggest objection, however, might be that Labute treats his characters precisely the way they treat each other - with disguised contempt, manipulating them to serve the hidden agenda. This probably explains the bad taste in the mouth after watching this movie, not because it shows something we don't know, but because it shows us precisely what we do know.
This story was published on September 12, 1997.
Volume 117, Number 41.
This story appeared on page 6.
I downed several manly martinis (vodka, dry, shaken, twist) before striding into the packed weeknight screening of In The Company Of Men in downtown Manhattan. I figured I'd need them, as I'd heard In The Company Of Men has been offending a lot of people. Two groups in particular get pissed off by the film's uncompromising battle of the sexes: (1) Women; and (2) Men.
Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Hal Hartley alum Matt Malloy) are generic, thirtyish, white guys in a generic, unnamed, branch-plant town for some six-week course. Both have recently been hurt by women, so they devise a plan for revenge. During the upcoming month-and-a-half, the two of them will select, simultaneously seduce and then dump some vulnerable-looking local female. They find the perfect victim in the person of deaf office worker Christine (Stacy Edwards). Christine's handicap ensures that romantic attention is enough of a novelty that she'll remain oblivious to their rancid agenda.
In The Company Of Men -- which should, in all fairness, be called In The Company Of Certain Men -- is a smart, sophisticated and genuinely disturbing piece of work. Writer-director Neil LaBute and actor Eckhart have, in the character of Chad, created a villain of unforgettable loathsomeness. (Sample quote: "Why is a golfball different from a G-spot? I'll spend 20 minutes looking for a golfball.") Through him, LaBute has orchestrated an atmosphere of menace ("confined and claustrophobic," LaBute calls it) without resorting to physical violence. Merely knowing Chad's profound hostility toward the opposite gender creates tension enough.
"The idea of deliberately setting out to hurt someone," LaBute says over the phone from a family vacation in Florida, "is extremely unsettling. But characters who simply stumble into something aren't interesting to me dramatically. I like playing a game with the audience, seeing how much they can take."
Audiences (and critics) in New York are not only taking it, they're loving it. They appreciate that LaBute has bothered to write dialogue so sharp and stinging that viewers don't even notice how minimal the camerawork and production values are. In fact, Men's merciless dissection of male-female relations is in the league of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Carnal Knowledge (1971), i.e., among the best ever put up on a screen.
For inspiration, LaBute turned to Restoration comedies. "I've always liked that period, with its lovers' triangles. And I've worked for a computer company, so it occurred to me I could lay '90s business culture onto the Restoration template. I can enjoy watching dinosaurs or flying planes, but I haven't done those things. But this is something people bring their own experiences to.
"It's not supposed to be indicative of male behavior," he goes on, "but if it's getting this much attention, it must be pushing some buttons. I see Chad at one end of the continuum, Christine at the other, and Howard somewhere in the middle. Howard's just too weak-willed to resist going along. He has the capacity for good, but doesn't exercise it because he's spineless and self-serving. It's easier to be complicit in something than to take a stand," the director observes, "whereas Chad identifies with abusers. The missing link is what made him so embittered."
As for the accusations of misogyny that have dogged In The Company Of Men, I can only say it's lamentable that North America's political sophistication is so low that a film containing misogynists is automatically assumed to be misogynist. Men is so clearly a critique of machismo that to imply otherwise is ludicrous. Anyone who thinks it's anti-woman is missing the point so completely it's hard for me to believe they're not doing it on purpose to further some political agenda of their own. Ignorance is regrettable; wilful ignorance is, like Chad's malice, unforgivable.
LaBute himself is philosophical about it all. "When people attack In The Company Of Men, I think of it as The Gift Of Hate," he laughs. "I embrace the criticism. It means somebody took the time to think about your movie. I've had my say, now it's their turn."
Chad and Howard are angry. They are not two 32-year-old men who would work in an office, but an office environment. They do not talk, but interface. A low buzz of jargon to keep the meaninglessness at bay. Strong coffee. Long breaks in the toilet. But then a fracture in the routine. Stuck in a faceless airport-Fort Wayne, Indiana, actually-they compare notes on their recent disappointments in the arena of love and lust. "Somebody rejects me, a woman, it just makes me-ah!-I can't stand it." Grumble, grumble. Male rage is articulated. Chad has been dumped by his latest twist in a nasty way, he says: her post-relationship behavior "was no thanks for four years of a roof over her bleach-blonde hair." Howard's hurt is less articulate, despite a broken pledge of truth, but Chad fills in: "If we were in India, we could burn that fiancee of yours on a pyre in the village square." The hairs on the back of your neck stand up-Wow, this is mean. Gorgeous writing, Mamet meets Pinter meets Hartley meets... Hey! A new minimalism! Then: yes, this is politically incorrect. "Life is for the taking, is it not," Chad plots with Howard over a bunch of beers. All first films could earn the title of Kubrick's suppressed first feature, "Fear and Desire." "In the Company of Men" deserves it. Speaks the unspeakable, thinks the unthinkable, and makes compelling drama of it all. This is not Adrian Lyne dandling the zeitgeist and telling it to cough-"Flashdance," "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal"-but a piercing drama delineated with keen moral intelligence. With Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, Stacy Edwards.
Scales of Justice
The feel bad movie of the year.
Definitely one of the "guy'est" guy flicks of all time, some people called it the feel bad movie of the year when it debuted, because its one of the most brutal portrayals of the misogynistic modern male ever set to film. Despite being a male type unit, I loved it even though it casts a pretty bad glow on my side of the species.
This basic plot line is that two guys, sent out on an extended business trip to a newly set up company site to guide the process, decide to have a little revenge on women in general. The plan is to find the most fragile, needy woman at the new site and play her like a sap at the annual violin convention, or is it a violin at the annual sap's convention? Anyway, they arrange to battle for her affections and build her up from her complete social dysfunctionality, then pull the plug as brutally as possible. To make things doubly brutal, the woman they end up choosing is deaf as well.
The story has a number of twists that make it far more redeeming than this description would indicate; however, giving them away here would ruin the experience for you. The viewer is purposefully given lots of conflicting hints about how the triangle is developing that build up well to a nice surprise ending.
There are no big name stars in this film, which I think is a good thing in this case. The heroine in this case is played by Stacy Edwards, who is in fact not deaf at all but does an amazing job of acting so. She plays the role well as a mousy and extremely self-conscious woman ripe for the kind of abuse that the men have planned for her. Her perfect sweetness and naivete makes their plan all the more disgusting.
The film has an interesting look. According to one of the commentaries, it was originally filmed with the assumption that it would be printed as a black and white. However, somewhere along the way this decision was changed and it remained color. However, the film stock used was somewhat unusual I guess, in that its color characteristics were not originally going to matter. The result is a quite saturated look that I think comes across rather well though somewhat muted.
There are two commentary tracks, one from the filmmakers themselves and one from the actors of the primary roles. Both are well done in my opinion, and I really do appreciate a good commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is not a 5.1 audio track, but since its a complete talky this is not really a big deal. The audio is not of terribly high quality, but its clear enough to understand the dialogue.
Due to the film issues mentioned above, some of the scenes are somewhat dark and shadowy which might give particular displays more trouble than others. The transfer is not super high quality but its good enough to get the job done.
Yes, men probably are scum and I guess we're proud enough of it to capture it on film for posterity. Women will probably put this one more in the horror or documentary genres I would imagine, but I think that they could enjoy watching it even if only to have their fears validated. The situation is approached with enough intelligence and care that it never descends into a farce or meaningless brutality. And, given the twists in the plot, its not always obvious where evil lurks at any particular time.
Definitely this one is acquitted. I feel that this film is representative of the kind of intelligent story telling that we need more of. Don't get me wrong, I like something to blow up once in a while to be sure the surrounds are still in phase, but I also like a story line now and again. And this film I think provides that kind of human story appeal. It might not be a great date movie, but if you're already married then she knows you're a bum anyway so go for it.
I'm sure that this film will get widely varying reviews because it will repulse many people, particularly those who don't distinguish between portraying something and advocating it.
Rating: **** [4 out of 4 stars]
In the weeks leading up to this year's Cannes film festival it wasn't clear whether the Iranian government would allow Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry, which it had banned in Iran because of its treatment of the theme of suicide, to be shown. The issue was settled before the festival started, but that didn't stop Gilles Jacob, the festival director, from orchestrating the film's arrival as if it were still a cliff-hanger--so that when it wound up sharing the top prize, the award was made to seem like a triumphant statement against government censorship of the arts.
I was delighted that Kiarostami's film won, because I liked it better than anything else I saw at the festival--and it was the only time in my eight years of attending Cannes that my favorite had been so honored. But I felt queasy about the waves of self-congratulation this provoked among some members of the press (none, I should add, encouraged in any way by Kiarostami)--especially when it became apparent that the film would probably open in Iran after all. In all the euphoria no one was remarking on the much more subtle and prevalent presence in Cannes of capitalist censorship.
But then, ignoring--and therefore tolerating, protecting, and supporting--the numerous instances of capitalist censorship at Cannes is just business as usual. This kind of censorship usually involves suppressing or distorting relevant information when that will help sell a movie. It means, for instance, that even though Nick Cassavetes didn't have final cut on She's So Lovely, a feature derived from one of his father's scripts, and was overruled on many particulars by his producers, we didn't hear a word about this at the film's press conference--nearly all of which was devoted to everyone saying how wonderful everyone else was to work with. It also means that even though Jean-Luc Godard's entire eight-part Histoire(s) du cinema was to screen at the festival and didn't, because Godard failed to complete the eighth part--he showed parts five and seven instead--there was no mention of these facts in any of the festival handouts or even at Godard's press conference.
I could cite dozens of other examples, but I'll focus on one that seems especially relevant to two of my other favorite films at Cannes, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter and Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men: a refusal or reluctance in reviews to mention or discuss capitalism itself. I suppose this self-censorship may be unconscious because of the omnipresence of capitalism--discussing it may be as superfluous as discussing the air while describing a landscape. But not discussing capitalism makes for strangely skewed readings of both movies.
Put simply, In the Company of Men describes the effects of aggressive competition in business on masculinity and romance, and The Sweet Hereafter (which is likely to turn up here later this year), adapted by Egoyan from a Russell Banks novel, evokes the effects of aggressive competition in litigation on the functioning of a community. But in what I've read so far--and LaBute's film has been written about a great deal since it premiered at Sundance back in January--neither film is examined too closely as a commentary on the way we live. A serious movie about the way we live is inherently something of a provocation. But in his first feature writer-director LaBute has carried the provocation to the point where it's virtually guaranteed to make us squirm. This isn't to say that the bizarre plot of In the Company of Men is very believable apart from its own context, or that the thesis is a simpleminded polemic about capitalism turning us into savages. LaBute is much more interested in the why and how of the process by which competition in business affects personal and sexual behavior than he is in mounting an attack, though he's clearly interested in rubbing our noses in some uncomfortable truths. A playwright who received a literary fellowship to study at London's Royal Court Theatre when he was in graduate school, he cites Restoration comedy as the model for his screenplay, "where wealthy, blase characters do unspeakable things just because they feel like it." (The plot also calls to mind the 18th-century novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, of whom Andre Gide said, "There is no doubt as to his being hand in glove with Satan.") The film's title, with its play on two meanings of the word "company," is derived from the title of a David Mamet essay.
LaBute says that his original idea for the film was one line of dialogue, "Let's hurt somebody," which occurs at the end of the opening sequence. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), young white-collar executives who went to college together ten years before, are sent by their home office to a branch office in a smaller city for six weeks. (In keeping with the film's unobtrusive minimalism, the company, like both cities, remains unidentified.) Professionally as well as personally frustrated--by the promotion of younger colleagues ahead of them, by being exiled to the boondocks, and by having been dumped recently by their long-term girlfriends--they pepper their dialogue with resentments.
When we first encounter them in a "courtesy lounge" en route to their midwestern branch office, Chad--the slicker and handsomer of the two--hatches a monstrous plot designed to soothe their bruised egos and, as he puts it, "restore a little dignity to our lives": find a young woman during their stay, shower her with attention and gifts that build up her romantic expectations, and then ditch her just before they leave. As Chad says, "Trust me, she'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and we will laugh about this until we are very old men." At once shocked, amused, and awed by the dimensions of such a scheme, Howard agrees to go along with it. Soon after their arrival--Howard, the weaker and less confident of the pair, proves to be the exec in charge at the branch office, with Chad working under him--Chad settles on an attractive deaf woman named Christine in their typing pool, and they both start dating her.
LaBute has said that his script has a five-act structure and "is a simple story: boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle," but neither assertion is unequivocally true. (Both come from the press handout at Cannes, and it would be unrealistic to expect LaBute, for all his artistic lucidity, to be less guilty of business as usual in promoting his work than Godard or Nick Cassavetes.) After the prologue the film is actually broken up into seven parts, each identified by a separate chapter heading ("week one," "week two," and so on, to the concluding "weeks later"), accompanied by highly percussive bursts of free jazz, which are also heard behind the opening credits. (Consisting mainly of relentlessly pounding drums, this music also features a saxophone during its first and last three stretches emitting a wild, tortured series of honks and wails that parallel the characters' emotional turmoil.) Properly speaking, only one of the boys, Chad, can be said to be giggling even figuratively by the end of the picture, and if anyone has been crushed at this point it's certainly not Christine, who in many ways remains the strongest of the three characters. (I won't reveal all the plot twists, but readers who plan to see the picture may prefer to check out here.)
The first time I saw In the Company of Men I tended to regard Howard as the more sensitive and humane and therefore the less detestable of the two antiheroes, but part of the film's power as an act of provocation comes from undermining this easy assumption and even turning it on its head. Mousy, awkward, and uncertain throughout about his position as boss at the branch office (as Chad puts it, it's his first time in charge), he's far less cruel about Christine than Chad when speaking about her privately, and less dishonest about his responses to her in her presence--when he shows embarrassment it's almost always genuine--which makes it easier for us to identify with him. But when it comes to action he's a good deal less lucid about his intentions and arguably winds up inflicting even more damage. The competition between him and Chad is of course just as operative throughout the film as the competition between the two of them and their coworkers, and the role of the grudge match between them in their daily work is obviously reflected in their plot to ensnare Christine--but only Chad has the lucidity to know what he's doing and why every step of the way. Thanks to this difference, both Christine and Howard wind up being victimized by Chad. But Christine is strong enough to recover and move on; by the end Howard is practically a basket case.
Chad evokes some of the reptilian cunning and vanity of Erich von Stroheim's lead roles in his early pictures Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives; as the ads in the 1920s said, Stroheim's "the man you love to hate." In The Company of Men invites us to relish Chad's Machiavellian single-mindedness even as it slams us against his derisive cruelty. This cruelty is most apparent whenever he speaks to Howard about Christine's choked form of speech (very persuasively handled by the nondeaf Stacy Edwards)--cracking an endless stream of abusive jokes that sound like the purest form of neoconservative humor. By contrast, Howard comes across as humorless, anal retentive (three scenes plant him inside a men's room), a mama's boy, and a bit of a worm, though it is he who controls our viewpoint on most of the action. By virtue of our uncertainties about him, he's the key to our uneasy relation to the material; our ambivalences may not be the same as his, but they guide us into the story.
Here's where the film's commentary about capitalism and its capacity to bait us is most explicit. Howard, who's much less successful than Chad in snowing Christine and winning her affection, uses his authority as boss to maneuver himself into a position where he can take her to a fancy restaurant over the Fourth of July weekend, meanwhile sending Chad off on a trip and sprucing up the expensive ring his former girlfriend returned to him so he can present it to Christine at an opportune moment.
Sandwiched between Howard's visit to a jeweler and his date with Christine is a pivotal scene: Just before Chad leaves on his trip, we see him sitting at Howard's desk, dressing down a young black intern, giving him a "fatherly" lecture about his behavior at work. In some ways this is the film's craftiest scene, because it's the most outrageous. It builds toward its biggest outrage--Chad's insistence that the intern drop his pants and show him his balls--in such a way that we can't tell when the threshold between the reasonable and the unreasonable is crossed. (In confronting the audience with the monstrousness of what it has already accepted, it resembles the last act of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming.) Munching on a sandwich--as Howard was doing with Chad in a previous scene--Chad says, "Let's see 'em, then, these clankers of yours. Let's see what you got....Listen, you got a kind of pair that men are carrying around, you practically wear 'em on your sleeve. That's what business is all about--who's sporting the nastiest sack of venom and who's willing to use it." After the intern sheepishly drops his trousers, Chad completes the ritual humiliation by asking him to fetch a cup of coffee, and we cut directly from this scene to Howard with Christine at the restaurant. Livid at being spurned by Christine, because by now she's fallen in love with Chad, Howard spills the beans to her about their "game." But because his own vanity has been wounded, he can't be pure about the gesture; fruitlessly hoping to gain her affection by exposing Chad's contempt for her, he can only humiliate himself. By forcing us to consider the messiness of Howard's behavior as closer to our own impulses, LaBute implicity raises the issue of our own complicity in the uglier aspects of capitalism that inform our own everyday emotional confusions. The sad fact is that Chad comes across as a self-perpetuating, impregnable myth, for better and for worse; Howard is a human being and a fumbler. There are still at least a couple more turns of the screw before we reach the end of this nasty parable about power. But the strength of LaBute's conception every step of the way is in forcing the issue of where we belong in this picture--with Chad, with Howard, or with Christine. Wherever we choose to settle, however provisionally, isn't going to be comfortable, but our discomfort can teach us something about the way we live.
Chad delivers the only line in the movie that contains an overt movie reference; hearing Howard say that he went for a drive with Christine on the Fourth of July, he responds, "A drive? That's nice--quaint. A little Magnificent Ambersons thing going on, or what?" In comparison with the film buffery usually displayed by filmmakers, this comes across as a freakish non sequitur--a stupefying curveball. Yet who's to say that a creep can't make a hip allusion? After all, Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons does offer a conundrum about the mess capitalism can make of our lives and the confusing emotional alliances we make in relation to this mess. In that film it's the gentle and sweet-tempered inventor, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who ushers in the barbarism and filth of the automobile, and the vain and odious aristocrat, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt)--the one who takes the heroine for a drive in a horse and buggy--who's ground into dust.
Men and women are likely (and understandably) to be disturbed by the acidly amusing and intoxicating "In the Company of Men," a new film about how pernicious and hateful men are towards women, and men. The film is a devilish surprise: a morbidly comical and terrifyingly real expose on what happens between men and women in today's society.
Newcomer Aaron Eckhart (resembling a young Harrison Ford) stars as Chad, a malignant office worker who continually shares his hateful views on other workers and women to his bumbling colleague, Howard (Matt Malloy). Chad hates everyone, hates his job and especially hates women. One night at a restaurant, Chad proposes an idea to Howard: they will find an insecure, sweet woman whom they will woo and then dump with a major thud. The idea is that they must be complicit in their wounding an innocent woman, which leaves Howard unsure whether to proceed with such a plan. Chad finds the right victim - a fragile, deaf secretary named Christine (Stacy Edwards). Chad's only objective in this game is to inflict emotional injury by only pretending to love Christine. Howard, however, really starts to develop feelings for her, and feels that this game is immoral.
There are many ways in which "In the Company of Men" makes us see how complex this triad is. Chad is eminently lethal and hateful whereas Howard is more caring and has some shred of humanity. The film doesn't make Christine a complete saint, though, considering she dates both men simultaneously until Chad tells her he really loves her. Essentially, Christine dumps Howard for Chad. Then Howard becomes envious and feels he has to do something to prevent this false union. But does Howard suddenly care because she's deaf, or becausehe loves her? And is Chad really doing more damage to Howard than to Christine?
"In the Company of Men" is both darkly comic and scathingly serious in its treatment of a curious subject - it is written by first-time writer-director Neil LaBute, and at times, you won't know whether to laugh or cringe. A major reason for this imbalance is the depiction of its characters who are acutely performed by all three leads: Eckhart is brilliantly effective as the insulting and obnoxious Chad; Matt Malloy makes Howard as pathetic and cumbersome as you can imagine; and Stacy Edwards is a revelation as the flattered Christine unaware of her doomed relationship with Chad; she projects sympathy and heedfulness.
"In the Company of Men" is a film you're not likely to forget and shouldn't - it is profound, shrewdly written and masterfully directed. LaBute composes this world in bland, colorless ways such as the anonymous offices; the employees dressed in white shirts; the dreary cafes, restaurants and rental cars; and roofs that seem to offer no discernible view. What will stay with you, though, is Chad's malice thereby evoking the most uncommon and complex behavioral portrait of the year.
Rating: 8 out of 10
In the company of men is a risk taking production. The whole premise of the movie is a game set up by two guys sick of their treatment by women. This is a game of revenge. They both simultaneously date a deaf girl who they plan to dump also simultaneously but there is a never a perfect plan and things don't run so smooth.
Many are eager to become defensive of the handicapped girl but she was an offender also. She herself was playing a game by dating both guys at the same time. This does not wipe the two guys slate clean but they didn't target someone innocent. She knew what she was doing and this showed just what the two guys were getting their revenge against. This may not lessen your efforts to dismiss this film due to the bitter attitude it promotes but comfort you a little and make you not feel as guilty when watching it.
The comedy's mistake was relying and putting the weight of the movie on dialogue. It exhausted dialogue, it overused it making the movie boring at times. A lot of jokes dispersed in there but not enough to balance the film out. Even at 90 minutes you will find yourself yawning at times.
In the company of men is brutal but respect it for that. Respect it for having the guts to meet and surpass the challenge of making such a controversial film. You may cringe, you may feel guilty but always remember what it took to actually put your name on a film like this. Respect the film makers and watch this a couple times. Its really not as bad as it sounds.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2 out of 4 stars]
A festival circuit darling, this humorously evil tale of dating to destroy had me both captivated and repulsed. The premise is intriguing: two businessmen on a 6 week assignment decide to wreak havoc on the love life of some poor, unsuspecting woman as revenge for their downtrodden hearts. LaBute's take-no-prisoners attitude to the story makes it an intense journey you can't look away from. Eckhart and Malloy are brazenly brutal in their game of love. They play businessmen on the road to success who are tired of crashing and burning when it comes to romance. However, this is a game they both can't win and one of them will end up even worse off then they were when it began.
Chad (Eckhart) is a handsome, buff charmer completely dissatisfied with everyone and everything. He's determined to make sure that no one just slips by in life -- except for him. Howard (Malloy) is more unsure of himself, always needing confirmation from Chad that what he's doing is the right thing. He may be Chad's boss, but it's clear from the beginning that he's not the one in charge. He initially dismisses Chad's little proposal, but in the end can't help himself. They're only in town for six weeks, so they won't really have to live with the repercussions of their actions. Their victim, Christine (Edwards), is a shy, pretty secretary who happens to be deaf. According to Chad, for their plan to work the woman needs to be desperate, the more wounded and pathetic, the better.
The film is broken out by week, letting the audience in on all their machinations. It doesn't take long for Christine to fall hard for Chad. He says all the right things and is so unassuming and charming. There's no way any woman would be able to resist him. Howard has also thrown his hat in the ring, though he has no real chance of competing with Chad. He's just too needy and desperate. Christine only agrees to go out with him because she's never been so popular and doesn't quite believe her luck where Chad's concerned. She's hedging her bets, but as time goes on she begins to believe she deserves someone like Chad and is too good for Howard. As the game progresses, it's obvious that Chad is pulling all the strings, which eventually break, leaving Howard in the dust -- jobless, friendless and loveless. Not to mention what he does to Christine.
Though this film has some funny moments, it is by no means a straight comedy. Only a total asshole would think what happens to these characters is amusing. The pleasure I got from watching this film is what I think everyone else does...you get to watch someone pulling everyone's strings, be as cruel as they want, and get away with it. Something that would be very difficult for any of us in the real world to truly accomplish. Now I know there are people out there who do accomplish this, which explains the proliferation of talk shows, which is why this film leaves a bitter taste in your mouth when all is said and done. What makes it stand out is the unrepentant script and the intense performances by Malloy and Eckhart. Eckhart is malicious to a fault, yet some small part of you still likes him at the end. Not an easy feat. An unflinching reminder of the bastards among us, lest you become their next victim.
They could have subtitled this one "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," this is a film about evil, unrepentant and unchecked. Director Neil Labute's first feature, shot for less than $50,000, effectively depicts misogyny and cruelty without making the characters seem overdrawn-no small feat in an era where Hollywood villains tend to be vaguely absurd caricature. But the result, while effective, is far from pleasant to watch; the ending is as troubling as that of any movie in recent memory.
The plot is simple enough, and Labute's minimalist style keeps the proceedings mercifully free from distracting subplots. Chad and Howard (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) have been assigned to a Midwestern branch of their company for six weeks, and Chad, establishing that each has lately been dumped by a girlfriend, proposes the following on the flight there: that the two romance the same woman during their stay and then abruptly dump her at the end of the six weeks. Why? "To restore some dignity to our race." Because, as Chad envisions it, "she'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and we'll laugh about this until we are very old men." In short for the thrill of it. ("Let's hurt somebody.") Moreover, Chad stipulates that it should be a lonely woman, "maybe disfigured," the better to prey on her insecurities and make her fall all the harder. Howard goes along, and Chad chooses a deaf typist named Christine (Stacy Edwards) as the victim.
The three central characters are well realized. Eckhart's Chad combines rage at the world for a variety of imagined slights with an oily charm-which works so well because it doesn't seem oily. Myself, I pigeonholed Chad as a fratboy gone bad, devoid of respect for anyone or anything; never does the character convey that he particularly cares about being liked, but the force of his self-assurance silences any potential criticism. Howard is as weak as Chad is strong-whether cowed by his mother over the phone or bullied by Chad (and the force of conformity that Chad seems to represent) into his plans, Howard's capacity to stand up for anything is minimal, and Malloy's stammer and nervous body language paint the picture well. And though Christine has little to do besides be a victim, Edwards gives her dignity; her insecurities, and increased confidence over the course of film, come alive despite the limited part. LaBute's style is best described as restrained: in many scenes, the camera simply stays where it is and lets the dialogue run, all in one shot. There are a few odd camera angles and sudden closeups, but the unremarkability of most of the camerawork keeps the director out of the way-and, perhaps more importantly, lends a documentary-style feel to the story, making the events that much more real. Adding to that is the frigid cinematography: the backdrops are airport lounges, executive conference rooms, hotel rooms, places so familiar that no one could consider them distinctive or foreign. The milieu feels depersonalized; the blank walls and bland surroundings draw attention to the coldness of the main characters' scheming.
Labute has called his film a "cinematic inkblot test," and it succeeds in that respect on several levels: the viewer is forced to ponder to what degree he or she shares traits with the two predators, or recognizes friends and associates in them. More than that, though, Labute strives to give the proceedings a comic element, and viewers who laugh may wonder afterwards how they could have found humor in such a grim tale. (I certainly heard plenty of laughter in the theater, much of it at moments that made me cringe more than anything else--and I refuse to believe that I was in a theater of sociopaths.) As in any good Rorschach test, the viewer is left unsure at the end about what went on-how close to real life do the interactions here come? Was Howard as guilty as Chad, or merely too weak to resist?
It could be argued that "Men" is really about the corporate lifestyle and the people it produces, and there is certainly that element. Chad uses his power to humiliate a black office worker; one discussion of Chad's various dislikes in the company instantly turns on the one who leaves the room ("I hate that prick"); the antagonism among the main characters springs in part from Howard's position of power in the firm. But the attitudes at issue are hardly specific to the corporate scene; they are common about all sorts, and the competitve sphere of the workplace brings them out especially vividly. And Chad, for all his charm, is not truly the type to climb the corporate ladder; such an ascent requires more fundamental people skills than superficial bonhomie, and no one who spends time around Chad could trust him or think his good will genuine. At bottom, the office environment in "Men" is relevant because it creates a situation where personalities clash, where different types are thrown together-and the story tracks what happens when a strong persaonality takes hold of a weak one. And it doesm't feel accurate to say that the men here are evil incarnate, far from real life; the intent, I think, is more to show what people are capacble of if suitably manipulated, and what locker-room misogyny could become if allowed free rein.
There is much to appreciate about "Men": the dialogue is fresh and snappy, and Chad's lines have enough bite to show that his is a character to be feared as well as despised. His humor, in particular, leads me to suspect that LaBute has been hanging around locker rooms taking notes-and the way he pressures a reluctant Howard into going through with the plan is classic high school bully. There are moments when the director appears to be deliberately savaging Hollywood conventions, particularly those involving romance, for instance when Chad goes saccharine: "I want our relationship to blossom." Likewise, the sheer force of the ending catches the viewer off guard-and makes the final few shots very nearly stomach-turning. If there is such a thing as a horror film without violence, this is it.
"Men," in sum, holds the grim fascination of a car accident: we know the sight will be unpleasant, but we look anyway. Though far from enjoyable, LaBute's first film is immensely thought-provoking.
There are some of us who despised frat boys so much in college that years after graduating, the sight of Sperry Topsiders, button-down Oxford shirts and Madras shorts is still enough to fill us with loathing. We may feel that loathing again when we see those same frat boys enter the corporate world in their crisp white shirts (button-down, of course), soberly patterned ties and muted gabardine trousers.
Neil LaBute shares that loathing. Frat boys rule the world in his debut film, "In the Company of Men," which won for Best Dramatic Feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival. LaBute has looked at the blank and hardy young execs waiting in line to climb the corporate ladder and seen rich white frat boys given even more power and privilege than they wielded on campus. "In the Company of Men," a sort of Theater of Humiliation lecture-demonstration on the extremes of sexual and corporate power, bitterly divided audiences at Sundance. And the debate over this movie isn't going to quiet down when it opens this month because of the moviegoers who are bound to confuse LaBute's point of view with that of his characters.
LaBute clearly doesn't hate women. His venom is entirely reserved for his protagonists, two corporate heels who set out to get revenge on all women. I can't think of another recent movie in which the director hates his leads as openly as LaBute does these two. He's like one of those guys whose car sports an "Another Man Against Violence Against Women" bumper sticker, a sentiment I've always found suspect because it implies that most men think it's just fine for women to be beaten and raped.
The irony of "In the Company of Men," though, is that for all the distance that LaBute puts between himself and his protagonists, he's made a movie that shares their sadism. "In the Company of Men" is basically a variation on the old frat-boy "joke" of hosting a dance that's actually a competition to see which brother can bring the ugliest date. Lantern-jawed, boringly handsome Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and doughy, bespectacled Howard (Matt Molloy) are two grasping young executives sent by their company on a six-week project to a branch office. Both of them have just been dumped by their steadies, and one drunken night Chad comes up with a scheme to avenge himself and Howard. He proposes that they find a woman with no romantic prospects in her life -- the more unattractive the better -- and then each woo her, get her to fall for them and dump her. Their chosen target is Christine (Stacy Edwards), a secretarial assistant working in the office they've been sent to. LaBute ratchets up the grotesque factor by making Christine deaf.
Dramatically, there's nowhere for a movie to go after a setup like that. Once we've learned that Chad is enough of a sh-- to come up with the idea, and Howard enough of a weasel to go along with it, the only thing left to do is to watch Christine put through the stages of her humiliation. It ceases to matter that LaBute hates Chad and Howard. He turns us into voyeurs with nothing to watch but an innocent woman being shattered emotionally.
"In the Company of Men" is a singularly unpleasant movie. And from the point that Chad and Howard settle on Christine, it's an increasingly unbelievable one, too. Edwards, who plays Christine, is a dark, fine-featured beauty. I defy anyone to see this woman and believe for an instant that she'd have trouble getting a date. The only reason LaBute expects us to believe it is that Christine is deaf. Chad and Howard are certainly stupid enough to imagine that handicapped people have no romantic life, but LaBute expects us to swallow it, too. In this movie, deaf equals lonely, simple and trusting. Watching Chad -- the sort of glad-handing prick drawn to the water cooler like a shark to blood -- you're struck by how easy it is to spot him as a bullsh-- artist. He's a walking, talking three-dollar bill.
For a movie so concerned with the transgressions of power, "In the Company of Men" never misses a chance to linger on the humiliations of the powerless. We're stuck, miserable, watching the shamed face of the young African-American worker whom Chad -- literally -- forces to prove he "has the balls" for the job. And when Chad dumps Christine, LaBute gives us an endless shot of her wailing and devastated that is almost pornographically invasive. LaBute employs a flattened-out realist style of sub-Mametisms and static camera setups that provide nothing more than excuses for two characters to talk. The style only accentuates how ludicrous the movie is. It's inevitable that this picture's defenders will point to recent cases of corporate sexual harassment to justify it. "In the Company of Men" is tailor-made to play to people who are predisposed to hate the corporate mentality. I consider myself one of them. But nothing LaBute does here meshes with anything I experienced during the three years I recently spent as a copy editor in the ad agency of a leading investment house.
The young execs I encountered were just as narrow and dull and conventional as Chad and Howard, just as numbingly focused on their jobs, just as conscious of who's gaining on them. So focused and conscious that, at their uncertain mid-level positions (no longer young promising recruits, not yet hot-shots) in an economy in which downsizing rules and employees are inundated with stern guidelines on what constitutes sexual or racial harassment, they wouldn't dare risk their jobs by pulling a stunt like this. By and large, the executives who've been caught in the biggest recent harassment or discrimination cases (like the Texaco one) have been high enough in the food chain to believe themselves untouchable. And since they've proved to be anything but, what chances do plankton like Chad and Howard stand? You'd have to be a fool to deny the existence of sexual and racial discrimination in an atmosphere still so predominantly white and male. But as women and minorities continue to make their presence felt in business, the resentment against them is going to become subtler, more insidious.
And it's going to come from the hot shots who have an almost childish need to think of themselves as nice guys. When Chad says, "Let's hurt somebody," he's a villain out of "Dynasty" or Harold Robbins. In "In the Company of Men," power equals villainy, and we're free to retreat into our fantasies of victimhood.