Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
Approach "Your Friends & Neighbors" with caution.
Writer-director Neil LaBute's second feature film has a blunt, paradoxical impact - like being whopped in the brain by a beautifully carved two-by-four. It's both a daring composition and a repelling look at gender warfare.
Like his first movie, "In the Company of Men," LaBute's new film is so emotionally savage it's certain to anger and offend both men and women. That's what it's meant to do.
Also, like LaBute's first movie, "Your Friends & Neighbors" is shot mainly in interiors. But rather than three characters, this movie has six -- three men and three women -- involved in a vicious circle of romantic duplicity.
The characters are anonymous, implying they could be your friends and neighbors. On the credits and cast list, LaBute has labeled them with cute rhyming names, but in the movie they never address each other by name.
To further distance the viewer, LaBute directs the cameras to move from up-close shots to long takes. That method makes the viewer feel like a peeping Tom, peering into the intimate lives of these characters. It also enhances a sense of alienation between the characters.
The movie's structure is repetitive but effective. It begins with Cary (Jason Patric) practicing his sexual moves while alone. It's a disturbing scene that's followed by a hovering look into the separate bedrooms of two couples. Although the movie focuses on the characters in private moments, sex acts and nudity are kept to a minimum. It's LaBute's dialogue that is shockingly direct and raunchy.
The three male characters are insensitive and self-centered in different ways.
With monstrous brilliance, Patric, who also was a producer of the film, plays a gynecologist who despises the women he seduces. In the opening scene he appears to be making love with someone, but it turns out he's only practicing love talk so he'll sound more sincere when he's with a woman. After hitting playback on his tape recorder, he smugly remarks, "Yeah, if I were a chick, I'd believe that." It's a line that reveals the depth of his character's moral bankruptcy.
Later, Cary recalls how he got revenge on a woman by notifying her on hospital stationery that she had contracted the AIDS virus. "You would have done the same," he says to his friends. "Common decency dictated the whole thing."
And finally, in a scene that stands as one of the most distressing monologues I've ever heard, Cary recounts his greatest sexual experience: Taking part in the gang rape of a teen-age boy in high school. The scene occurs in a tiled steam room, making the viewer feel trapped in a foggy mental institute with a sexual deviant. LaBute clearly drew on his own experience working part time in mental hospitals while pursuing a graduate degree.
Cary's pals include Barry (Aaron Eckhart), a weak husband who can't get beyond his own selfishness to experience satisfying lovemaking with his wife, Mary. He finds sexual release through secret masturbation; Mary (Amy Brenneman) looks elsewhere for fulfillment. She attempts an affair with Jerry, an arrogant, talkative college professor played by Ben Stiller, whose own lover, Terri, seeks silent refuge in the bed of Cheri, a lesbian played by Nastassja Kinski.
Catherine Keener as the ferocious Terri stands up to Patric's sick Cary in a bookstore encounter. Even though she's an unsympathetic character, we briefly admire her. Overall, LaBute's women characters aren't admirable, although they aren't as awful as the men.
After seeing this movie, audiences will wonder what trauma LaBute suffered in his own childhood to result in such a bitter view of male-female relations. But LaBute, a Mormon who lives with his wife and two children in Fort Wayne, Ind., tells interviewers he had an uneventful, normal middle-class upbringing in Spokane, Wash.
"Your Friends & Neighbors" is as hypnotic as a bloody boxing match. One can't help watching as its amoral characters, confined in claustrophobic interiors, dismantle each other slowly but surely. LaBute's contemporary take on the war between the sexes is a bleak lesson in how not to treat your friends and neighbors.
Neil LaBute, director of the controversial "In the Company of Men," returns with a second savage look at the war between the sexes. In this one, three men and three women engage in a vicious circle of sexual duplicity. Approach this movie with caution and expect lively discourse after viewing. The ensemble cast includes Catherine Keener, Ben Stiller, Aaron Eckhart and a monstrously brilliant performance by Jason Patric.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4]
Your Friends and Neighbors is Neil LaBute's latest excursion into the realm of men behaving badly. While not as accomplished as his first film, In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors is a little less brutal, and provides some extremely provocative insights into '90s relationships. The DVD, which features commentary from LaBute and producer Steve Golin, presents viewers with a fascinating if flawed film and a listenable if not overly compelling audio commentary.
Misogyny, Misanthropy or Modern-Day Morality Play?
The characters in Your Friends and Neighbors are never named and yet most of us are acquainted with them. There's the weaselly drama instructor (Ben Stiller), his girlfriend (the radiant Catherine Keener) who leaves him for another woman (the under-utilized Nastassja Kinski), the schlub friend (a chunky Aaron Eckhart) and his wife (Amy Brenneman), and the revoltingly misogynist buddy of the two guys -- played expertly by Jason Patric.
In many ways, Your Friends and Neighbors is a filmed play. Other than these six characters, all the other parts are dialogue-less walk-ons. LaBute is only interested in using his screenwriting scalpel to examine the ways in which these specific few comport themselves with each other. And for the most part, the script conveys the weaknesses, cruelties, and foibles of its characters truthfully and effectively.
Coming hot on the heels of In the Company of Men, and dealing again with the terrible ways that men often treat women, Your Friends and Neighbors was bound to be accused of misogyny. However, I believe that this criticism is without merit. While flawed, the female characters in this film are far stronger and more humane than their male counterparts. Except for its misfired ending, Your Friends and Neighbors is a compelling piece of work from an expert provocateur.
The real appeal of the Your Friends and Neighbors DVD for most people is the chance to hear LaBute on the audio commentary. Much has been written about LaBute, especially about his being a Mormon and whether that does (or does not) tie in with the morally critical nature of his films. Is he espousing a holier-than-thou attitude by directing films about immoral characters inhabiting a modern-day Sodom, or is he providing a window into the difficulties between men and women in today's society which looks a little deeper than popular self-help books? Personally, I tend toward the latter and find LaBute's religious beliefs of note, but irrelevant for the most part. On his audio commentary (which also features producer Steve Golin), LaBute takes the high road and doesn't discuss his beliefs or the critical commentary that has swirled around them.
What LaBute does discuss, however, is certainly not as compelling as I'd hoped. He and Golin spend most of the commentary congratulating each other on the script, the locations, camera placement, and so on. The constant self-aggrandizement becomes tiresome. However, there are buried treasures here and there. For example, LaBute discusses a few scenes that were deleted, which provides some interesting background information. He also tries to justify the ending using reasoning that I found of note, but ultimately unconvincing. It's also interesting to discover which character he likes the most (you'll have to listen to the commentary to find out).
While I've certainly listened to less interesting commentaries, I was expecting more from LaBute. Had he chosen to discuss the accusations of misogyny or misanthropy that accompany his films, his writing process, or even had he just applied a more rigorous critique of what worked and what didn't in the film, it would have made for a more provocative commentary. Let's hope that in the next go-round, LaBute spends less time patting himself on the back and more time expressing what makes his characters tick.
Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors is about a group of six men and women who for the most part treat each other shabbily. One man attempts an affair with a friend's wife. A second man reveals himself to be something of a sociopath. The women are scarcely more generous or enlightened. One complains bitterly about her partner's propensity for talk during sex. "Let's just do it, I don't need the narration," she snaps. Sexual dysfunction generally prevails and the remedies proposed are perhaps worse than the problems. In the course of the film a marriage breaks up, another relationship shatters, friendships come to an end. Everyone ends up unhappier than or as unhappy as he or she began, having learned nothing.
LaBute (the director of last year's In the Company of Men) seems to feel strongly that something has gone wrong with modern relationships. Who would argue with that? And certainly brutality, psychic or otherwise, is a legitimate subject for a film. ("What other subject is there?" asks one of Fassbinder's characters in Beware the Holy Whore.) But human relationships and their failings are serious matters and demand that one adopt a serious approach to them.
The writer-director calls his work "A Modern Immorality Tale." His characters are essentially nameless. (For the purposes of the credits they are given similar-sounding names: Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry.) They are ostensibly contemporary Everymen and Everywomen.
How much can be gained from this sort of abstract study of human relationships? Cruelty is not the natural condition of humanity and is, in fact, difficult to sustain. In general, people must have either an overriding, material stake in mistreating others, or a steady source of provocation. Central characters in each of LaBute's films have neither. Do coldhearted, entirely self-absorbed creatures exist? Yes. But they exist for a reason. They are, as unfashionable as this may sound, the products of social and psychological circumstances. They can be explained. Other films (as well as novels and plays) before this one have, with varying degrees of artistic success and social insight, associated selfishness and ruthlessness in personal relations with the specific character of American life in the 1980s and 1990s. There is no extraordinary mystery about the proliferation of such personalities.
LaBute's interest, however, does not seem to lie in a condemnation of the conditions that create unkindness, but in a blanket and superficial indictment of his fellow creatures. It is hard not to associate his notion of abstract, causeless Evil with the prevailing hostility toward tracing serious problems to their source in social life. Pragmatism, intellectual laziness and (lucrative) accommodation to a foul atmosphere come together here.
Make no mistake, while Your Friends & Neighbors is a relatively restrained piece, it is ideologically driven. LaBute became a Mormon while at Brigham Young University. He told a New York Times reporter, "It's a crazy thing about faith. Whether it makes scientific sense or logic, at some point it takes over and you say yes it's right, or not." The dramatically and intellectually pivotal scene of LaBute's new film takes place in a restaurant. The ineffectual Barry and the sadistic Cary arediscussing good and evil. The latter admits that he is not a good person. Barry asks him whether he believes in God, divine punishment and such things. Cary replies: "If there ends up being a God or an eternity or anything like that ... we'll see. Until then, we're on my time."
Many great artists, including filmmakers (Bresson, Tarkovsky, etc.), have held religious beliefs. That is not the issue. But there is something about LaBute's outlook that fits too seamlessly into the current political and cultural picture. Why, for example, has this extraordinary moralist struck such a chord in Hollywood and with the media? Why has his outlook proven no hindrance in building up a successful career? His "darkness," his cynicism do not go against the stream in any significant sense. "People are all pigs, anyway!" is the self-serving, quasi-official watchword of the American political and media establishment. For its members this serves as the justification for past, present and future swinishness. Whatever LaBute may have had in mind, and one can even give him the benefit of the doubt here, many of his admirers are simply drawing malicious satisfaction from his work: "See, that's what everyone is like."
The essentially opportunist character of Your Friends & Neighbors finds its sharpest expression at the dramatic and aesthetic level. If one were to take seriously that a deeply spiritual sensibility was at work here, it would be difficult to explain the glib dialogue (which inflicts on us more of the generally unfortunate influence of David Mamet), the often clumsy acting (Ben Stiller and Amy Brenneman are not good; the talented Catherine Keener and Jason Patric are misguided; Nastassja Kinski is given little to do; only Aaron Eckhart shows any depth) and the bland images. There is very little in the look or feel of the film that hints at human tragedy, or even conditions of isolation and loneliness. It is, for the most part, rather brightly and cheerfully put together.
LaBute would have to produce a far different, far more difficult work to convince me of the sincerity or depth of his disgust with modern life; at the moment, he seems rather comfortably at one with it.
Consider the possible combinations.
Neil LaBute has and the results ain't pretty. Adultery. Betrayal. Sex. Lies. LaBute, the man wrote and directed IN THE COMPANY OF MEN knows what evil lies in the hearts of men (and women) and no one comes off unscathed in the pitch black new comedy YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS. Set in an unspecified city, (it was shot in L.A. but it could be anywhere), it's the story of Jerry (Stiller), Barry (Eckhart), Mary (Brenneman), Terri (Keener), Cheri (Kinski) and Cary (Patric). Sounds cute, eh? It's not. In just over 90 minutes Mary will sleep with Jerry, Terri with Cheri and eventually Cary with... well you get the idea. It's a vicious roundelay where marriages are broken, friendships crushed. Why do you suppose this wasn''t a feel good hit when it played in theaters last year?
LaBute has a theater background, and for better or worse, this is a talking heads showcase. The actors all perform seamlessly with the men getting the choice lines and best roles. Most notable is Jason Patric, who also served as co-producer. YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS is based on an old script called LEPERS and Patric immediately responded to the role of Cary, the woman hating braggart. This is a guy who is so vain he tapes his lovemaking sounds and plays them back while he works out. Patric makes a speech three quarters into the film that brings things to a screeching halt. For four uninterrupted minutes he mesmerizes us. Hell, you'll even forgive SPEED 2.
All these terrible things going on makes for a most distinctive viewing experience. Indeed, for many the subject is so raw and realistically laid out, many will shout "You call this entertainment?" But thanks to LaBute's wicked lines (they don't call him the Mormon Mamet for nothing), you either cringe or burst out laughing. Depends on your temperament and idea of what's funny. Once again Stiller shows he's the best at getting abused on film. What is it about this masochistic actor? He's been tormented by pests (THE CABLE GUY), caught his wife getting her armpit licked (FLIRTING WITH DISASTER) and even seen with jiz dripping from his ear (SOMETHING ABOUT MARY). As the ultra intellectual Jerry, Stiller talks up a storm until push comes to shove. Then he's a babbling inarticulate idiot, the funny sort we haven't seen since early Woody Allen.
Also of note is Aaron Eckhart who put on 30 pounds to play the unsuspecting husband and it's a world away from his debut as the womanizing Chad from IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. Stuffed and bewildered, he's the closest thing to a sympathetic character in a world populated by equal opportunity offenders.
As his first film, LaBute lets his female characters off a little easier and they're not as well written. Amy Brenneman shows some real teeth as the cheating Mary, but it's nothing she didn't show us when she was a regular on TV's NYPD BLUE (before it became NYPD Blah). Catherine Keener, an actress in more indies than Parker Posey, is her usual competent self and as the bi-sexual plot conduit, Kinski does her best work in years.
Like life, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS is painful, ugly and sometimes very, very funny. And because LaBute knows how to tap into that rare breed of humor he gets the maximum X-score. See it with someone you love. And don't trust.
LaBute's film is tough to watch -- it seems to be more suitable for the stage, and it is not written for wide audience appeal. It is a story of the "me only" generation, who inhabit a stylishly fashionable world. The characters are self-absorbed, greedy, and uncaring. They are consumed by sex, which is mainly used to fuel their power trips. The dialogue is trivial; they talk about sex every chance they get -- whether exercising, eating in a trendy restaurant, or in bed. These '90s characters vaguely remind me of the protaganists in earlier films involving the sexual revolution, such as Bob,Carol, Ted, and Alice and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though these characters are not as amusing or witty. Their coldness is disturbing and the framed shots and dialogue of the film is so successful in capturing this mood, that the film becomes wearisome and is not a particularly appetizing one. I wouldn't recommend it as a date movie!
Aaron is the financially successful corporate man who is sexually unsatisfied by his attractive wife (Amy). He says masturbation is his best form of sex. Amy is cast as the sexual object, who attracts all of Aaron's friends, as she tries to work out her sexual problems. Ben is the thespian/professor living with his girlfriend, the dykish Catherine, who only enjoys sex when there is no talking and is only interested in her own self-gratification. Ben is the one who has lost track of his integrity, and has become pompous and untrustworthy.
Kinski is the museum worker who becomes Catherine's lover. Her character is undeveloped. She meets all the characters in the story through her job in the museum, and might even be considered the "nice one" in this film; but, I think that is a bit of a stretch. No one is really nice in this film.
The couples suffer from their hang-ups, unable to have good relationships and be satisfied with themselves. For one, sex is a macho thing and a means of acting out his proficiency in sexual techniques by having many women. For another, sex is a means of finding self-worth.
It is tough to critique this film mainly because it is not meant to be merely entertaining as much as its aim is to be an in-your-face drama. Nevertheless, it must be commended for its rawness and honesty to subject matter. Therefore, viewer beware, what you see is not often pleasant, and what it means to you depends on whether or not you find that this bitter portrayal of relationships is one you agree with or not.
It might be of interest to note that LaBute is, of all things, a Morman [Mormon]...uhmmmm!
Not that anyone would be asked under oath about their sexual lives, but...
Neil LaBute's follow-up to "In the Company of Men" is a story about all the pain that's paved the road to hell (along with good intentions). It's a distilled comic drama about missed connections and the very contemporary inability to connect, through words, gestures, hopes. The unromantic romantic lives of six characters in an unspecified city are hashed out in exquisitely excruciating detail, and they're splendidly acted by Jason Patric, Amy Brenneman, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski and Aaron Eckhart, each actor making a connection to LaBute's terse text that sears the heart. The actors' tactile choices only humanize the generalizations of the script.
The form of the film suits its ambiguity, trimmed to its essence, shot entirely with interiors in widescreen and with very little music (mostly bursts of Metallica performed by a string quartet). While each character - no names are ever spoken - performs a dance of self-justification, the one most people will talk about is played by Jason Patric. His character says and does things that go beyond the pale of most social boundaries, yet insists "You would have done the same thing... Common decency would demand it."
Originally, Patric had intended only to produce the $4.3 million film, but was drawn to the dark characters and the wickedly funny paces LaBute puts them through. "My whole idea was to help young filmmakers. When I saw 'Company of Men,' I wanted to make this guy's second movie and protect it. Neil's first movie, in essence, was a home movie. They did whatever they could do. The second movie is usually more important than the first. I wanted to use whatever power I have and have people to come and do what they do. Then he wanted me to play a role," he says with a smile.
Patric sees his character as more than a simple bad guy. "I think that's too simplistic," the soft-spoken actor says with firmness. "Was Ralph Fiennes in 'Schindler's List' a rat bastard? I think it would be easier for people if [my character] was wearing a swastika. This character is far too complex and too well-written to just be a jerk, an asshole, a rat bastard. He's the only character in the movie who never lies. He's the only one who says things exactly the way he feels. There's actually a rationale for every piece of his behavior. Since we live a life of complete rationalization, I think it's a little chilling because his goes to an extreme." Patric cites a scene where his character rages at one of his lovers. "Even in that scene where he pours out the tirade to the girl that's had her period in his bed, in his mind she was on her period and she knew that and she came to him and bled all over his very expensive sheets."
Is that behavior misogynist? "Maybe," the 32-year-old actor says after a beat. "But I don't think he's doing it because she's a woman. Misogyny is a certain hatred towards woman. We're not yelling at her because she was a bad lay. And I'm not defending him, by the way, I'm talking about a certain pathology that exists in something like that. I think that's much more interesting and chilling, to see the working behind twisted logic. That's much scarier than the idea of bad and bad things that are done. With a character like this, you get to a certain point that there's a logic attached to it that makes you look at yourself."
One compelling aspect of "Your Friends and Neighbors" is how the almost generic character of the bad choices made by everyone in the story could have been made by any audience member at some point. "All too true," Patric murmurs. "I certainly felt that reading it. I saw his movie before it came out. We were looking for young filmmakers. We flew him out, met him, asked him if he had any more material. So I read this. And you would absolutely attach to yourself to one of these characters, or know someone who's been in a situation like that. You can only play yourself or parts of yourself, and I've learned that through the years. I've felt good about that in parts that you could attribute certain heroic traits to, kind, passionate ones. But, y'know, I've been on the freeway and I've wanted to shoot someone. I've had lovers I've wanted to strangle, but I've never put a finger on them. You have those feelings and those emotions, so you sequence them in a way to play the person."
Patric is also firm about the everyday quality of the nightmare situations these characters concoct for themselves. "A lot of people have said that it's cynicism, these are bad people. It's not that. They're all trying to make what in their mind they think are the good and right choices."
The comedy, he thinks, is a way of getting an audience to examine how we make these choices. "Comedies are funny, but to me it's much more interesting to see real humor come out of uncompromised situations. A laugh is a reflexive response, you can't help it, it's like a hiccup, and when you take in that breath, you're taking in the venom you've just watched. You're involved in it; you can't help it. You have to ask yourself, am I yearning for that, do I want that, am I part of that?"