Rating: **** [4 out of 4 stars]
EXCERPT: "The film's star is LaBute, a genuine modern movie auteur who ventures behind the tantalizing blurbs on the covers of those trendy men's and women's magazines to find miserable, unhappy people."
Rating: **** [4 out of 5 stars]
Although Neil LaBute's audacious debut film, In the Company of Men, is a tough act to follow, the writer-director's sophomore effort, Your Friends & Neighbors, finds LaBute's audacity hardy and intact, even if it now seems a little more predictable and mannered. LaBute's subject matter still finds its punch from the banal cruelty of which human relationships are capable. Only now, in this follow-up film, LaBute has focused his lens on the bedroom instead of the boardroom. His constellation of characters here has doubled, from three to six, and now includes women among society's perpetrators of contemptuous immorality. LaBute's narrative structure and visual strategies are rigorously crafted, bespeaking an almost mathematical calculation that, in compellingly contradictory ways, both enhances the dramatic experience while undermining its very authenticity. What's never in doubt, however, is the authenticity of the dialogue: LaBute writes conversations as though eavesdropping were his full-time occupation. The language is cutting, foul-mouthed, and raw; words are the ammunition of articulate savages. In this, his language is given an able assist from a uniformly brilliant crop of actors. Yet the people he depicts are our "friends and neighbors," our recognizable and ordinary selves rather than the distanced corporate villains of In the Company of Men who make a conscious pact to "go out and hurt someone." This time out, LaBute's characters really hurt the ones they love, or the ones they bed -- occasionally one and the same. The story is set in some unnamed urban center and, likewise, all six characters remain nameless throughout the course of the film, although the credits list their names as a curious sing-song mix-and-match of sameness: Mary, Terri, Cheri, Barry, Cary, and Jerry. Jerry (Stiller) is an over-analytical drama professor with a penchant for Restoration comedy and a physical appearance that I think more than a little resembles that of LaBute. Jerry's domestic partner Terri (Keener, the indie film actress par excellence) is a cold, practical sort who just wishes Jerry would shut up while they are making love. Jerry prompts the movie's roundelay when he propositions the wife of his best friend Barry (Eckhart, who poured on the flab for this role as the cuckolded husband following his role as In the Company of Men's well-toned predator). Sex between Jerry and his wife Mary (Brenneman) has become unsatisfying; Jerry readily admits to the guys that the best sex he ever had was with himself. To even the score with Jerry, Terri takes Cheri (Kinski) as a lover, but the film's showiest role belongs to Patric's Cary, a cynically amoral cad who admits to the vilest of behaviors and indeed, is seen prior to the film's opening credits practicing sexual sincerity into a tape recorder while masturbating. Your Friends & Neighbors is nothing if not neatly structured: the compositions, the repetitive set-pieces, the camera movements, and character balance. And though it's a pleasure to watch, the payoff is mostly cosmetic. Perhaps because In the Company of Men was such a total triumph of form, means, and content, everything else LaBute does will seem diminished by comparison. He has certainly carved out an identity for himself as our smartest scenarist of the dark side of human nature. Whether many of us will want to look is another question entirely.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
For his second feature, director Neil LaBute ventures across a domestic landscape that is no less dark than the world of corporate backstabbing he visited with In the Company of Men. Those looking for something lightweight or feel-good need not bother with Your Friends and Neighbors, a slow-moving, often disturbing look at miscommunication between the sexes, dysfunctional personalities, and the disintegration of relationships. The film contains enough humor to qualify it as a black comedy, but, underneath all the dialogue, Your Friends and Neighbors offers a bleak message about life and love in an era of growing emotional isolation.
The characters in Your Friends and Neighbors are well-defined, but there isn't much growth. We know who they are, but not who they have been or who they will become. They are creatures of the moment. That's really the point, though, since Your Friends and Neighbors is designed as a voyeuristic peek behind the drapes and blinds of suburban bedrooms, not a drama with character arcs. With a sparse narrative that does little more than move the protagonists from situation to situation, the movie lives and dies on the basis of two primary characteristics: acting and dialogue. Both, fortunately, are strengths.
The first person we're introduced to is Cary (Jason Patric), an egotistical womanizer who uses sex as a weapon. Those who saw In the Company of Men will recognize similarities between Cary and that film's vicious protagonist, Chad. Cary doesn't really have women problems, because he never lets anyone get close to him. He sleeps with them, then discards them. On the other hand, Cary's two friends, Jerry (Ben Stiller) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), are embroiled in problematic relationships. Jerry, a college drama professor, is having increasing difficulties with his girlfriend, Terri (Catherine Keener), who wants him to be quiet during sex. Barry is unable to perform with his wife, Mary (Amy Brenneman), leaving them both sexually frustrated. Meanwhile, there's the wild card, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a artist's assistant who, in her quest to have meaningful human contact, meets the other characters one-by-one as they stop by the gallery where she works.
There isn't one healthy male/female relationship in Your Friends and Neighbors. Jerry and Terri are at each other's throats from the beginning, and are cheating on one another before the movie is half over. Barry and Mary, despite having what looks to outsiders like the ideal marriage, are miserable because their attempts at sexual intimacy turn into sessions of ego-bruising failure. Then, when Mary tries to have an affair, the experience is an unmitigated disaster, destroying what little self-confidence she has about her ability in bed. As for the other two characters, Cary rejects the concept of intimacy, and Cheri craves it like a drug.
It's impossible to dismiss what LaBute has to say as the ramblings of a cynic, because there's much truth in these characters and in the sentiments they express. LaBute has not created a gallery of bizarre, larger-than-life individuals. As the title implies, these are our friends and neighbors, the kind of people we meet every day at home and at work. LaBute's intention here is not to distort reality, but to expose the fiction of the American dream and to demonstrate that, as Jerry explains it, everything in life and literature is "just men and women... and it's always about [sex]."
Unlike many of today's young directors, who seem more comfortable filming action sequences than character interaction, LaBute understands how to photograph intimate moments. His camera is never static, but it doesn't move around so much that it calls attention to itself. LaBute also writes believable, pointed dialogue. When Jerry, Barry, and Cary get together for occasional "boys' nights out," much of what they say rings true. And the writer/director injects humor into all of these discourses, so that sometimes even the most potent revelations come with a laugh (albeit an uncomfortable one).
LaBute, whose stock has risen since the release of In the Company of Men, used his newfound clout to assemble an impressive ensemble of high-profile actors. Jason Patric, perhaps best remembered for his part in the box office bomb Speed 2, plays Cary with a cold intensity that is almost psychotic. As Jerry, Ben Stiller creates a character who is likable and more than a little pathetic. Catherine Keener's Terri is strident and annoying -- this part gives the actress, who typically plays quiet individuals, a chance to show her bitchy side. Amy Brenneman's Mary is sad and wistful. Then there's Aaron Eckhart, who has changed his appearance so drastically for this part that those who saw him in In the Company of Men may not recognize him. He gained weight and dyed his hair to portray Barry, the kindest and most clueless member of the group. The only one without a solid role to sink her teeth into is Nastassja Kinski, whose screen time is limited.
In its devotion to dialogue, Your Friends and Neighbors reminded me a little of James Toback's recent Two Girls and a Guy, although the characters here are richer and LaBute has generated a more compelling script. It's refreshing to see a movie like this -- something that's edgy and entertaining, and doesn't try to appeal to "the masses." As was true for In the Company of Men, LaBute doesn't care if viewers are offended. Supported by a fine group of actors, he tells the story without compromises, and that gives us a refreshing alternative to multiplex fare.
Rating: *** [3 out of 5 stars]
The only amazing thing about Your Friends & Neighbors is the amount of controversy supposedly swirling around the film.
A contemporary, and often bleak, sex farce, the film has been both hailed as a masterpiece and written off as a dark study of moral turpitude; alas, it is neither extreme.
It is pretty great, though.
Your Friends & Neighbors involves six characters. Ben Stiller and the underrated Catherine Keener play one couple. Amy Brenneman and Aaron Eckhart play another. Then there's Nastassja Kinski as a lesbian art gallery owner and Jason Patric as a misogynistic sick twist who tapes his own efforts at impressive coital chit-chat and plays them back to himself later during his daily workout. The plot concerns how everybody sleeps with everybody else, more or less.
The film, though ostensibly an examination of couplings and mores of our time, also examines issues of friendship, trust, expectation and the deeply shallow.
None of the characters is admirable, but familiarity breeds some sort of interest in their welfare. Jason Patric's character, for example, reveals far more than is required for one to gather that he is quite a piece of work; in a steam-room scene with his male buddies, he describes, in intense close-up, the thrill of having been involved in a sexual assault on another adolescent during his highschool years. This is one of the scariest scenes we've seen in anything in a long time, and, though it consists of nothing but talking, it's the scene that put writer/director Neil LaBute (In The Company of Men) in a NC-17 ratings tussle in America.
The people in Your Friends & Neighbors are all self-delusional to some extent. Harrowing but funny, the sickest joke in the film appears to be the 'moral,' which is little more than the old adage: There's a lid for every saucepan. These would be saucepans you wouldn't want to touch, mind you.
Your Friends & Neighbors is a slick production in which language is all. The characters are calm, cool and disaffected yet violent, and they use words to wound. For all the chat, mind you, the movie also involves silence, used brilliantly. And the settings and colors of the film reflect the moral ennui of the story.
Your Friends & Neighbors puts forward real answers to the "how's it going?" questions we casually ask one another, and those answers involve lying and cheating and a sort of moral stupidity. Neil LaBute is very good at kicking over rocks, and even better at examining what crawls out from under them.
Sex can be complicated, confusing, and permeated with every emotion and motive imaginable. This is certainly true for the six characters in Your Friends & Neighbors, which is writer and director Neil LaBute's follow-up to his bold debut In the Company of Men. The uneasiness and ambivalence the men and women in this drama experience with each other reflects the continuing sexual wars in society at large.
Cary (Jason Patric) is a self-obsessed doctor whose misogyny comes across in his cruel treatment of various women who are unlucky enough to come under his power. His two best friends have their own problems with intimacy. Barry (Aaron Eckhart) turns to the pleasures of masturbation since he's unable to sexually arouse his wife Mary (Amy Brenneman). In her unhappiness, she agrees to a secret rendezvous with Jerry (Ben Stiller), a drama professor. It turns into a fiasco that's unfulfilling for both of them. Meanwhile Jerry's girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener) begins an affair with Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) who works at an art gallery.
Your Friends & Neighbors is a cautionary tale about the various ways men and women use words and sex to hurt each other. Instead of serving love and understanding, words and sex are used for power, punishment, revenge, and self-destruction. Even the camaraderie of the men is laced with anger, distrust, and competition. Your Friends & Neighbors is not a pleasant film to watch but it does shine a spotlight on some aspects of contemporary sexual politics.
EXCERPT: In his new film, Neil LaBute continues the bleak yet comic examination of contemporary middle-class mores he began with In the Company of Men. In that controversial parable of corporate morality, the ethics of the global economy were deployed by two sexually predatory men against a mute girl. In Your Friends & Neighbors, LaBute explores the conflicted libidos and savagery of six friends whose relationships with one another are withering from mutual contempt and an almost complete lack of love.
Rating: **** [4 out of 4 stars]
Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors" is a film about monstrous selfishness--about people whose minds are focused exclusively on their own needs. They use the language of sharing and caring when it suits them, but only to their own ends. Here is the most revealing exchange in the film: Are you, like, a good person? Hey! I'm eating lunch! The movie looks at sexual behavior with a sharp, unforgiving cynicism. And yet it's not really about sex. It's about power, about forcing your will on another, about having what you want when you want it. Sex is only the medium of exchange. LaBute is merciless. His previous film, "In the Company of Men," was about two men who play a cruel trick on a woman. In this film, the trick is played on all the characters, by the society that raised and surrounded them. They've been emotionally short-changed and will never hear a lot of the notes on the human piano.
LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors" is to "In the Company of Men" as Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" was to "Reservoir Dogs." In both cases, the second film reveals the full scope of the talent, and the director, given greater resources, paints what he earlier sketched. In LaBute's world, the characters are deeply wounded and resentful, they are locked onto their own egos, they are like infants for which everything is either me! or mine! Sometimes this can be very funny--for the audience, not for them.
Of course they have fashionable exteriors. They live in good "spaces," they have good jobs, they eat in trendy restaurants and are well dressed. They look good. They know that. And yet there is some kind of a wall closing them off from one another. Early in the film, the character played by Aaron Eckhart frankly confesses that he is his own favorite sexual partner. A character played by Catherine Keener can't stand it when her partner (Ben Stiller) talks during sex, and later, after sex with Nastassja Kinski, when she's asked, "What did you like the best?" she replies, "I liked the silence best." Ben Stiller and Keener are a couple; Eckhart and Amy Brenneman are a couple. In addition to Kinski, who works as an artist's assistant, there is another single character, played by Jason Patric. During the course of the movie these people will cheat on and with one another in various ways.
A plot summary, describing who does what and with whom, would be pointless. The underlying truth is that no one cares for or about anybody else very much, and all of the fooling around is just an exercise in selfishness.
The other day I spent a long time looking at the penguins in the Shedd Aquarium. Every once in a while two of them would square off into a squawking fit over which rock they were entitled to stand on. Big deal. Meanwhile, they're helpless captives inside a system that has cut them off from their full natures, and they don't even know it. Same thing in this movie.
LaBute, who writes and directs, is an intriguing new talent. His emphasis is on writing: As a director, he is functional, straightforward and uncluttered. As a writer, he composes dialogue that can be funny, heartless and satirical, all at once. He doesn't insist on the funny moments, because they might distort the tone, but they're fine, as when the Keener character tells Kinski she's a writer--"if you read the sides of a tampon box." She writes ad copy, in other words. Later, in a store, Kinski reads the sides of a tampon box and asks, "Did you write this?" It's like she's picking up an author's latest volume in a bookstore, although in this case the medium is carefully chosen.
The Jason Patric character, too, makes his living off the physical expression of sex: He's possibly a gynecologist (that's hinted, but left vague). The Eckhart character, who pleasures himself as no other person can, is cheating on his wife with ... himself, and he likes the look of his lover. The Brenneman character is enraged to be treated like an object by her new lover, but of course is treated like one by Eckhart, her husband. And treats him like one. Only the Kinski character seems adrift, as if she wants to be nice and is a little puzzled that Keener can't seem to receive on that frequency.
LaBute deliberately isolates these characters from identification with any particular city, so we can't categorize them and distance ourselves with an easy statement like, "Look at how they behave in Los Angeles." They live in a generic, affluent America. There are no exteriors in the movie. The interiors are modern homes, restaurants, exercise clubs, offices, bedrooms, book stores. These people are not someone else. In the immortal words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." This is a movie with the impact of the original stage production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." It has a similar form, but is more cruel and unforgiving than "Carnal Knowledge." Mamet has written some stuff like this. It contains hardly any nudity and no physical violence, but the MPAA at first slapped it with an NC-17 rating, perhaps in an oblique tribute to its power (on appeal, it got an R). It's the kind of date movie that makes you want to go home alone.
Your Friends & Neighbors, Neil LaBute's follow-up to last summer's cleverest horror film, In the Company of Men, is comparably creeped out and claustrophobic--a fascinatingly mean-spirited erotic comedy set in a realm of self-absorbed fantasy and overdetermined intergender misunderstanding.
Venturing into territory where no modern sitcom is yet prepared to go, although not far from the spot where In the Company of Men left off, Your Friends & Neighbors begins with a flurry of trompe l'oeil nastiness: A sexual athlete rehearses his pillow talk with the help of a tape recorder, a randy professor demonstrates for his students that Restoration comedy is "always about f---ing." So, too, LaBute's movie--except that, as subsequent vignettes make abundantly clear, f---ing is always about power, failure, and humiliation.
Jerry the drama prof (Ben Stiller) learns that lesson soon enough when his significant other Terri, (Catherine Keener), puts a damper on his verbose lovemaking by asking him to shut up: "This is not a travelogue." (The acerbic Keener has the bitchiest lines in the movie: "F---ing is f---ing, it's not a time for sharing," she'll later tell a group of women friends.) Cut from miserable couple A to their friends, miserable couple B. Barry (Aaron Eckhart) fails to respond to his wife Mary (Amy Brenneman)--or is it Mary not responding to Barry, who later tells some guy at work that "nobody makes me come like I do."
Although predicated largely on such one-liners, Your Friends & Neighbors develops a narrative when, with Jerry and Terri enjoying a somewhat strained dinner chez Barry and Mary, Jerry takes advantage of an opportune moment to sexually proposition his hostess. Despite Jerry and Mary's fantasies of self-improvement ("I'm very optimistic," he tells her as they check into a hotel), adultery proves just as awkward and unsatisfying as every other human relationship in LaBute's movie-- although it does set off a realignment of the stars.
Doubling the triangle at the heart of Company of Men, Friends & Neighbors is enlivened by its ensemble acting. Ben Stiller--the most fearless comic performer in American movies--adds another portrait to his gallery of off-putting neurotics. Stiller's combination of lewd monkey-man and overanalytical nerd draws sparks from both the always estimable Catherine Keener--herself oscillating between cajoling vixen and vicious cojones breaker--and winsome Amy Brenneman, whose Mary is usually a few beats behind the others. Aaron Eckhart, the diabolical seducer of In the Company of Men, is punished for his earlier sins--appearing here as a pitiful zhlub--while Jason Patric, who coproduced the picture, handles not only the role of an unsympathetic bully but an ostentatiously daring soliloquy.
A sour La Ronde of chance meetings and symmetrical repetitions, Friends & Neighbors progresses through a series of one-on-one come-ons, trysts, and scenes in which characters confront their unfaithful partners, typically picking a supermarket aisle as the place for a domestic squabble. ("I tried to at least f--- outside our calling circle," is one memorable reproach.) As in his first feature, LaBute eschews exteriors and establishing shots. The framing is precise, the editing minimalized, the setups recurring. Each of the principals has an opportunity to meet the gorgeous gallery assistant Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) in situ. But, if Friends & Neighbors feels less formally worked out--as well as less politically astute--than the ruthlessly constructed Company of Men, it may be that LaBute took advantage of his first feature's success to dust off an earlier script.
Trapped in LaBute's Skinner box, the characters are condemned to repeat their behavioral patterns while metaphors are piled on innuendos and erotic intrigue corkscrews through the most innocuous interaction. What circle of hell do these lying, manipulating characters inhabit? (Or is hell their relationships with withholding, belittling, depressed partners?) Designed to make the viewer squirm, Your Friends & Neighbors is more than a little funny, and a good deal more misanthropic than even In the Company of Men. I doubt we'll see acrueler sex comedy until Todd Solondz's Happiness opens this fall. Although frequently compared to David Mamet, LaBute's is a distinctive sensibility, at once antisensual and lascivious, as punitive as it is provocative.
Perhaps the movie is not apolitical after all. Although the six characters don't have to go very far in search of their author, LaBute doesn't have the generosity to identify them as "our friends and neighbors," let alone the guts to call them his. There's a giddy sense of puritan revenge--as though the filmmaker's dream audience would be watching these antics from the stocks.
A less negative but even more extreme vision of the human sexual response may be gleaned from The Eel, Japanese master Shohei Imamura's first film in eight years (and the movie that shared the Palme d'Or with Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival).
Violence is not verbal, nor sex consensual, in Imamura's films--his wildly sensationalist oeuvre is populated by a raunchy assortment of killers, prostitutes, and pornographers. ("I am interested in the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure" is the one-sentence manifesto that emblazons the Cinematheque Ontario's recent monograph on his work.) The Eel's pre-title prologue is a movie in itself. Tipped off by an anonymous letter, the innocuous salaryman Takuro--played by Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance?--returns home early from an all-night fishing trip and, catching his wife in flagrante, stabs her to death. The credits come up as Takuro bicycles to the police station to turn himself in.
Eight years later, the wife-killer is paroled from prison, along with his pet eel--a symbol so blatant, and so quintessentially Imamura, that it soon becomes thoroughly defamiliarized. ("He listens to what I say--he doesn't say what I don't want to hear," is how Takuro explains his attachment to the creature.) Having trained as a barber while in jail, Takuro sets up shop in some obscure corner of Japan with his eel installed in a prominent fish tank. Takuro doesn't care much for human contact but, this being an Imamura film, his eccentricities scarcely set him apart from the rest of the species. His parole officer is a ridiculously understanding Buddhist priest; his nearest neighbor is engaged in constructing a six-pointed star with jerry-built flashing lights in the hopes of attracting a visitor from outer space.
Despite occasional shots from inside the fish tank, The Eel is more staid--and even more tentative--than the 70-year-old director's vintage films. Still, the mood-shifting narrative line is adroitly handled. As slippery as its namesake, the movie starts like a thriller, settles into what might be an elaborate purification ritual, then--once Takuro has almost grudgingly saved the life of Keiki, a would-be suicide who resembles his murdered wife (and is played by the same actress)--blossoms into a sort of wistful romance. As obvious a symbol as the eel, Keiki's embodiment of Takuro's second chance appoints herself, against his wishes, as helpmeet--and thus, under the influence of their respective pasts, pushes the plot toward melodrama.
Ferocious yet gentle, its tone shifting once more to gangster drama and then black comedy, The Eel concludes with a lunatic yet symmetrical turn of events that culminates in an unexpectedly hallucinatory and touching ending. Ultimately, The Eel is the unconscious made tangible. Takuro becomes the eel and, in becoming the eel, he sets it free. This simple, sinuous fable may not be among Imamura's greatest films--it lacks the crazy libidinal energy of The Pornographers or Eijanaika--but it could hardly have been made by anyone else.
Your Friends & Neighbors"?
Well, no. Not my friends and neighbors. Not anybody's friends and neighbors, unless you live in the sixth circle of Hell, where it rains ammonia all day long.
That's how toxic Neil LaBute's new film is. Where is FEMA when you need it?
Basically a group portrait of three young men who want to be sleeping with everybody except the women they are sleeping with, but still want to sleep with those women and also don't want anybody else to sleep with them. It's a festival of bad boyism. And bad girlism: The females are just as vicious. Worse yet, it's a festival of annoyance. For example, one of LaBute's characters is whiny, treacherous, cowardly, manipulative and deeply off-putting. And he's the hero!
LaBute attracted great attention with his first feature, "In the Company of Men," which was similarly misanthropic but much more focused and dramatically developed. This, his second film, sports a much larger and more famous cast, bigger budget and better production values. But it's pretty much the same story, with the same characters under different names and performed by different actors, doing the same nasty things.
For example, in "Men," a terrific actor named Aaron Eckhart played a sublimely vicious sociopath named Chad Piercewell (he was a cad and pierced well) who manipulated a fat friend toward destruction. In "Your Friends & Neighbors" there's still a vicious sociopath and he still manipulates a fat friend toward destruction, but now Eckhart, plumped up like a Christmas goose for the basting, is the fat friend, and the hard-body monster is played by Hollywood hotshot Jason Patric. It's not nearly so merry, however, because bad Patric isn't nearly so much fun as bad Eckhart and good Eckhart is no fun at all. Moreover, "Your Friends & Neighbors" lacks the incision, the clinicality of the first movie. As a piece of storytelling, it's a mess.
A final unnecessary idiocy: It's one of those infantile horrors where the characters' names all rhyme: Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry. What happened to Harry? That's the trouble with Harry! He's never around when you need him!
Let's not bother with the names, which are meaningless anyhow. Let's call the characters Amy (Brenneman), Aaron (Eckhart), Catherine (Keener), Nastassja (Kinski), Jason (Patric) and Ben (Stiller). It's much clearer that way, Larry.
Ben is with Catherine, who loathes him, because he talks during sex. Aaron is with Amy, though he's pretty lame in the sack and would rather -- how can I say this? -- entertain himself. Jason is in the company of wolves -- that is, with himself, and only pretending friendship with the other two guys, while trying to share his DNA with everything that walks (and I do mean everything, as a story he tells makes clear). Nastassja, who works in an art gallery, is not with anybody either, but she wants to be with someone -- Catherine. So everydamnbody begins to switch with everyotherdamnbody.
The performances are so monotonic that you understand depicting authentic humanity is not the writer-director's goal: Each character has been reduced to a single unpleasant primal trait from which deviation is not permitted. Jason (for the record: Cary) is the bad dog, and he's that and only that, without color, texture, contradiction, reality. Ben (the record again: Jerry) is the whiner, and he is the ultimate, compleat, total, endless whiner. He whines with such gusto and witless serenity that he becomes truly unendurable. Ladies and gentleman, for the love of God, can we not agree that one Ben Stiller movie per year is enough!
In the end, everybody gets their most fervent wish, and remains just as furiously miserable as before the partner-switching began. The two most innocent -- Amy and Aaron -- naturally are punished the most severely. The two most guilty -- Jason and Catherine -- are rewarded, as they should be. Ben and Nastassja just go on, still not getting it.
Now and then, LaBute stumbles into something funny. In one sequence, Jason, who seems to be an OB/GYN doc, begins to absent-mindedly punt a fetus model about the hospital, a true reflection of his deep commitment to family values. In several others, the joy the characters take in unbearable verbal destruction has a kind of horrifying fascination to it.
But the film has no shape or narrative force. It merely chronicles events. And LaBute's prime stylistic trick -- to flatten out the background, depopulate the world until the film feels so theatrically spare that nothing is left but character and words -- becomes annoyingly artificial as the story gets wearier.
If friends and neighbors like this moved in next door, you'd think: There goes the universe.
Rating: **** [4 out of 5 stars]
During sex-ed back in school, the first thing our teacher said was "Sex is communication. If you remember nothing else about my class, please try to remember that." "Your Friends and Neighbors" is about six people who have a great deal of trouble communicating. Variously angry, self- absorbed, over-analytical or simply needy, they couple in a variety of sexual combinations, but no one ever seems to end up satisfied.
After a screening of this pitch-black comedy, one very upset journalist exclaimed "They're not my friends and neighbors! I don't know these people. I don't want to know these people!" I said nothing, but realized that I do know these people. I dated one of them. To be completely honest, there was an awful period of time when I was one of them. Extreme as they may be, the characters in "Your Friends and Neighbors" are drawn from contemporary culture. Look closely and you'll realize that they really are your friends and neighbors, and maybe you as well.
This is the second film from Fort Wayne writer and director Neil LaBute. His first, the brilliant "In the Company of Men," created a sensation last year and made most "Best of" lists at years-end. A dark study of power and cruelty, the film ended with a revelatory scene the forced audience members to rethink everything they had witnessed up to that moment. "Your Friends and Neighbors" contains no such scene. The last act of the film takes place in your head, as you try to sort out the actions and motivations of these six people.
Jason Patric is a hard-bodied predator who rehearses his sex talk and plays tapes of it on his Walkman during workouts. Asked if he considers himself a good person, he angrily snaps "Hey, I'm eating lunch!" then tells of using pilfered hospital stationery to exact revenge by sending an anonymous note to an ex-girlfriend stating that she had been exposed to the HIV virus. He acknowledges that he may face repercussions if Judgment Day ever comes, but "until then, we're on my time."
Aaron Eckhart (Chad from "In the Company of Men") is a rumpled sad sack who confesses that his favorite lover is himself. He's not kidding. After a failed sex session with Amy Brenneman, his unassuming wife, he masturbates beneath the covers while she curls in the fetal position and pretends to be asleep.
Ben Stiller is a pompous dramatics professor whose sex talk infuriates his lover, Catherine Keener. "Let's just do it," she growls in frustration, "I don't need the narration." Both try to augment their hollow love lives by seeking extracurricular partners. Ben invites Amy to have an affair with him, while Catherine cozies up to Nastassja Kinski, an artist's assistant at a local gallery. After they have sex and Kinski asks Keener which part of the lovemaking was her favorite, she replies, "I liked the silence best."
"Your Friends and Neighbors" is often bleak and occasionally nightmarish, but also extremely funny. LaBute films his dark character study using a number of distancing devices. There are no exterior shots in the story's generic city, and the character's names are never spoken. As a result, we watch them with an almost clinical detachment, enabling us to laugh, rather than cry, at the foibles of the sextet.
The acting is quite good as well. Jason Patric's intensity has worked against him in previous films, but it's completely appropriate for this character, and he gives a blistering performance. His finest moment comes when he describes his most memorable sexual experience. In a four minute scene with no cuts, the camera moves ever closer to Patric's face as he delivers an absolutely riveting monologue recounting a violent sexual encounter that he remembers with great fondness. It's twisted, horrific and a terrific piece of acting.
Aaron Eckhart is exceptional as the antithesis of his "In the Company of Men" character, particularly during a wonderfully nuanced confrontational scene with his wife. Catherine Keener imbues her damaged character with a humanity that softens the cold words she speaks. Her facial expressions when Jason Patric verbally assaults her in a bookstore are heartbreaking. As the foppish professor, Ben Stiller is appropriately smarmy, while Nastassja Kinski gives her character a wispy, beguiling feel. Amy Brenneman also impresses as the most enigmatic of the group.
LaBute uses extended takes, stylistic repetition and variations of the same scene to give the film symmetry. Sometimes it works and sometimes it seems overly mannered. I've watched "Your Friends and Neighbors" three times and, at different points, viewed LaBute as a ferociously honest visionary and a smug elitist. I'm sure he would be delighted at my reactions. His ability to both enthrall and anger is testimony to his skills as a filmmaker and provocateur. Neil LaBute is the real deal and "Your Friends and Neighbors" is a hell of a movie.
Edgy black comedy of sexual gamesmanship from the director of In the Company of Men.
Indie filmmaker Neil LaBute's debut feature, In the Company of Men, was a disturbing portrait of two white-collar executives who play a cruel, vengeful game on a vulnerable young woman. Your Friends & Neighbors, LaBute's follow-up film, explores similarly dark terrain but, this time out, the female characters fight back, giving at least as good as they get.
Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart) seem to be an ideal couple, but their marriage is unfulfilling. After a dinner party, Jerry (Ben Stiller), who has been seeing Terri (Catherine Keener), asks Mary if he can call her sometime. This request triggers a chain of events which leads to swift, and even hurtful, consequences for a small circle of lovers and acquaintances, which extends to Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a woman of some mystery-or maybe not-who works in an art gallery, and Cary (Jason Patric), a doctor, whose candid, if twisted, view of life is revealed in a steam-room scene likely to be much talked about among moviegoers.
Like LaBute's previous film, Your Friends & Neighbors is structurally the cinematic equivalent of a Chinese box. That configuration suited the simpler narrative demands of In the Company of Men, but here, the structure is almost a character in itself, constantly adapting to intersect with twice as many characters amid the inevitably larger possibilities for them to interact. The result is a more fluid and more intricate movie that challenges the viewer at nearly every turn.
Eckhart, who played the manipulative corporate stud in LaBute's earlier film, is almost unrecognizable here as the portly, onanistic Barry. Stiller brings a creepy charm to Jerry, who rationalizes that, whatever the behavior, 'it's just men and women.' Keener is a candid breath of fresh air as Terri, who points out to her companion that 'I, at least, tried to f--- outside our calling circle.' Brenneman conveys Mary's goodness, as well as her fragility, once her short-lived fling with Jerry begins to unravel. Kinski, with her enigmatic presence, makes the most of her underwritten role as an art-gallery object of desire. As for Patric's monstrous Cary, he practically makes the villain of In the Company of Men look like a sensitive New Age creampuff.
At this time last year, LaBute was on the receiving end of some critical knocks-perhaps undeserved-as a kind of David Mamet wannabe. There are still some Mamet-like touches, mostly in the movie's staccato dialogue, but, with Your Friends & Neighbors, this second-time director appears to be venturing more into a Dangerous Liaisons-like terrain. The landscape is one of sexual gamesmanship, viewed as a male-driven, ongoing power struggle. At the same time, there are reminders here of Woody Allen's over-urbanized pleasure seekers and Max Ophuls' La Ronde, with its merry-go-round of couplings and betrayals. But LaBute adds some unusual elements to his chamber-like piece, the most jarring of which is the sawing electric guitar-work of Apocalyptica performing songs by Metallica.
Whatever his influences, LaBute is taking a decisive step forward, moving from an attention-getting debut to a witty and observant exploration of sexual mores, acted by a well-chosen ensemble. If In the Company of Men was LaBute's calling card, Your Friends & Neighbors is his arrival.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 out of 4 stars]
Neil LaBute's "Your Friends & Neighbors" is akin to a sociological cataloging of human misery, cruelty, and sexual dysfunction. Its characters are either inhumane, self-absorbed, insipid, or all of the above. Throughout the film, those personality flaws (which are so immense, the word flaw seems insufficient) come into constant conflict, causing unending misery and pain. Only one character escapes unhurt, and that is only because he is arguably invincible from feeling human pain because he cannot feel any emotions outside his own hatred.
Like LaBute's first film, last year's "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors" takes place in an unnamed city. It broadens the character scope from "Men" by having six major characters instead of only three. However, "Friends & Neighbors" is more claustrophobic in its settings (always indoor) and flabbier in its script. While "Men" was a taut, relentless morality tale, "Friends & Neighbors" seems surprisingly listless. It simply floats along on its characters' self-induced misery, moving from scene to scene as they slowly destroy their own lives from the inside out.
The major characters are composed of two couples and two singles. The couples (who are never named until the final credits, making them that much less human) are Barry (Aaron Eckhart) and Terri (Catherine Keener), who are married, and Jerry (Ben Stiller) and Mary (Amy Brenneman), who are not. Jason Patric (who also co-produced the film) stars as Cary, a friend of Barry and Jerry's who is single and as nihilistic as they come. Finally, there's Nastassja Kinski as Cary, an artist's assistant at a museum who begins an affair with Mary.
Suffice to say, the majority of the plot revolves around how these various characters cheat on one another with the others, and their names all ending with -y (or the fact that they are never named in the dialogue) suggests they are essentially interchangeable. The film is set up like a tragedy, but it doesn't have much resonance because the people are never happy to begin with. Unlike Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973) or Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" (1992), both of which deal with deteriorating relationships in superior fashion, LaBute's film never gives us the illusion that any of its characters are happy in their present situations. In fact, it suggests they never were happy, never could be happy, and never will be happy, no matter in what situation they put themselves.
Each character is built around two interrelated dysfunctions: the inability or lack of desire to communicate with others, and sexual dilemmas of varying sorts. Much of the labored dialogue among these characters is inflected with lots of "uh," "so," "well," and uncomfortable silences. They simply cannot talk to one another as civilized human beings. The only times the words flow is when someone is yelling at someone else.
Sexually, problems abound. Mary doesn't enjoy sex with Jerry because he talks too much; Jerry doesn't enjoy sex with Mary because he wants to talk and she won't let him. Barry and Terri, although the happiest couple on their shallow exteriors, are introduced in bed where they are attempting intercourse in an awkward position and fail miserably. In a later scene, Barry happily confides to a friend that he gets more satisfaction masturbating than making love with his wife, although he later claims that his best sexual experience was with his wife; in other words, he doesn't know what he likes or what he wants or how to communicate that to anyone. Eckhart, who put on about 30 pounds to play the role, essentially plays the someone who is the exact opposite of his character from "In the Company of Men," and he is just as good.
Cary, Jason Patric's character, is another story altogether. For him, sex is a game; not a playful game of tricks and semantics like one might see on a sitcom, but a full-contact sport where destruction of the other person is the ultimate goal. There are numerous, bone-chilling scenes where Cary either relates atrocities he has committed in the past (such as getting revenge on an ex-girlfriend by making her think she has AIDS) or conducts them on-screen (such as when he verbally humiliates one of his partners because she begins menstruating at an inopportune time).
There is one point where Cary relates the tale of what he considers his best sexual experience. The harrowing story he tells is so horrifying--not only in its contents, but in the blase manner in which he relates it--that it truly calls into question whether or not this man has a soul. That notion is reconfirmed later when Barry asks him if he thinks all his evil deeds will catch up with him in the end. Cary simply shrugs, says "probably," but reassures that this is "his time" right now, and nothing else matters. Patric's performance is superbly cruel, and nothing he has done prior to this film suggested his ability to play such a dark, nihilistic character.
In the film's subject matter and in its ironic title (these people are, after all, your friends and neighbors), LaBute says that sex is at the heart of existence for everybody, and communication is merely a tool used by men and women to achieve sexual contact, although that contact is more often destructive than constructive. The film's characters cannot communicate and therefore their sexuality suffers, and because they aren't having good sex, there's nothing to talk about. In an early scene, Stiller's character, who is a drama instructor, informs his students that every story can essentially be boiled down to "men and women." "And what do they want to do?" he asks them. "They want to f---."
Which is essentially what "Your Friends & Neighbors" is about, and therein lies its weakness. "In the Company of Men," LaBute's debut feature, is a significantly better film because it is more complex; although both films essentially deal with the same subjects--power, cruelty, sex as a weapon, the human capacity to harm others--"Men" was not only richer thematically, but it was a more watchable film because it displayed levels of human development and concentrated its observations on how characters at different levels interacted.
In that film, two men played by Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy play a cruel joke on an innocent deaf woman played by Stacy Edwards. Edwards represents the good potential of humanity that always becomes the victim of cruelty; Eckhart represents the worst of humanity that seeks out decency to destroy it; and Malloy is that gray in-between, a weak character who is essentially decent, but can be manipulated into cruelty.
This was, I think, what made that film so powerful--not that it simply shows a group of cruel, immoral people and all the damage they can do, but because it demonstrates how and why people become cruel and immoral: either through extreme anger or weakness. "Friends & Neighbors" lacks that textual element. Without the potential for decency to counterbalance and give context to the cruelty, "Your Friends & Neighbors" becomes a simple study in human depravity. And, although well-made (LaBute is an expertly minimalistic director), it lacks that extra dimension that could have made it resonate.
Rating: [Man dozing in chair: 1 out of 4]
"Your Friends and Neighbors" is the title of writer-director Neil LaBute's new movie -- but whose friends and neighbors is he talking about? Not mine. Not yours, I'd bet. And not even his, I suspect.
This is an embarrassing film. It's a sex comedy that sets itself up as a satire of middle-class mores, except there's no truth behind any of its observations. LaBute tries to be shocking and manages only to be shockingly puerile -- tasteless in a high-school-boyish sort of way.
The picture begins with a close- up of a man (Jason Patric) having sex, gasping out rude compliments about the woman's body and technique. Then the camera pulls back and we see that he's alone, practicing his banter into a tape recorder.
Next we enter the bedroom of a couple, played by Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener, who are actually doing the deed. During the act, he can't stop saying stupid things like, "Do you feel it?! Do you feel it?!" She finally pushes him away, and he storms out of the apartment in a huff.
And so on for 100 minutes. "Your Friends and Neighbors" is made up of a series of unsuccessful, pathetic and grotesque sexual encounters, interspersed with conversations in which friends and acquaintances do nothing but talk about sex. Why they should be so fixated on sex is anybody's guess -- they're all so bad at it.
More than 20 years ago, David Mamet broke ground in this area with "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," which sent up certain kinds of men and women and lampooned the way people talk about sex. But the talk in "Your Friends and Neighbors" is too false to be a lampoon and too flat to be interesting.
LaBute has his characters constantly asking each other about their most memorable encounters. Jason Patric, as a ruthless lothario, has a long monologue in which he describes the ecstasy he experienced raping a boy in the high school locker room. The monologue is bereft of any artistic truth. It's just calculated for a reaction.
LaBute's first film, "In the Company of Men," was about two junior executives who brutally seduce and dump a deaf secretary. People either criticized it for being politically incorrect or praised it for the same reason. Some saw it as an indictment of male cruelty. Camille Paglia, the sharpest critic, said it was too politically correct.
After "Your Friends and Neighbors," LaBute's first effort looks simply like a deliberate provocation, with no integrity beyond that. Certainly his second movie rolls out the same trick: He tries to titillate by showing the most appalling behavior he can devise -- for example, in one scene a man explodes at a sex partner for staining his bedsheets. At the same time, by putting all the evil and idiocy on the male characters, he leaves his film open to a feminist interpretation.
"Your Friends and Neighbors" is not a feminist or an anti-feminist film. It's just empty -- false, insincere and a complete waste of time.
In its coolly unapologetic sexual fury, Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" was such a hard act to follow that his second film, "Your Friends and Neighbors," is of automatic interest.
Once again exploring a chasm of bitterness separating men and women, how much further could this savagely articulate filmmaker go? Expanding his dramatic focus to accommodate twice as many characters, three men and three women, LaBute indeed matches his first film's shock value at several junctures and keeps the bile flowing freely. But inevitably this scorched-earth terrain is more familiar the second time around.
Unlike "In the Company of Men," which was fearlessly cruel in ways that took the breath away, LaBute's latest film strains harder to achieve its sting. Its opening sequence, in which a sweaty, preening stud (Jason Patric) rehearses his sexual technique as the ultimate masturbatory exercise, certainly sets a high standard for revealing nastiness. Then the film introduces a drama teacher, played by Ben Stiller in Mephistophelian facial hair, who believes that sex is all that matters in any form of human transaction. And it goes on to add a new obscene phrase to an otherwise rich lexicon: best friend.
Three men obsessed with one another's sexual performance are at the film's core, with Aaron Eckhardt playing the third member of the trio. Eckhardt, who looked much sleeker then, played the vengeful Romeo in LaBute's first film.
But here he turns up as a mousy, impotent middle-aged husband, the kind of man who asks his wife (Amy Brenneman) whether he should wear the loden or salmon shirt that day. United with her in a state of sexually unsatisfying union, he finds himself playing host to an equally uneasy couple:
Stiller's character and the acerbic writer played by Catherine Keener. The camera watches as each couple shares a miserable sexual interlude before they all meet.
The film's characters have no stated names, but that hardly makes them unfamiliar. LaBute clearly means to present the universal aspects of their hostility and their betrayals. So Stiller is seen making a secret pass at Ms. Brenneman while admiring the new home that she shares with his buddy.
And in a dinner table conversation involving the gift of a broken wristwatch, LaBute's screenplay consciously exposes all the lying, sniping and self-deception that defines the speakers' essential natures. The painting by Alex Katz that is incorporated into the film's credits hauntingly compounds the sense of social disjunction throughout the story.
"Your Friends and Neighbors" is often so blunt or unrelievedly talky and dark that it cries out for the velvet glove of "Manhattan," a much more seductive film about sexual opportunism and urbane cruelty. Yet even when LaBute's material feels mannered (there are careful repetitions and symmetries) or unremittingly sour, it sustains a psychic ferocity that commands attention. The web of lies, failures and brutal revelations here is strong stuff, and it's the work of an original filmmaker who takes no prisoners.
When Patric, who is one of the film's two producers, turns up as a macho gynecologist who treats an anatomical baby model like a football, and who screams about the thread count of his sheets to a sexual conquest who's gotten blood on them, it's clear that LaBute is still ready to go for the jugular on every possible occasion.
After all, these film's characters obsessively rate and boast about their best sexual experiences -- and for one man, the zenith turns out to be having committed homosexual gang-rape in a high school locker room.
The cast, photographed with deliberate warts-and-all harshness by a mostly stationary camera, has the gutsy unself-consciousness to make much of this angry material work. Catherine Keener, a queen of independent film for her tart, funny work in Tom DiCillo's films and "Walking and Talking," establishes that LaBute can create women as shrewd and poisonous as his men. As the beauty who works in an art gallery and fields passes by most of the film's other characters, Nastassja Kinski hints at what it means to be prize and victim in these sexual wars.
Stiller, who can bring so much sneaky allure to playing unappealing characters, embodies many of the filmmaker's most misanthropic notions, sharing with Patric and Eckhardt a physical brutishness that turns sexual swagger into something monstrous. In the end, these characters are devastatingly true to LaBute's idea of self-annihilating manhood. They're hard to watch and even harder to forget.
EXCERPT: "Irresistibly entertaining!"
Printed credits for Your Friends & Neighbors list the six characters' names as Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry.
It is typical of writer-director Neil LaBute's perverse sense of humor that those names form an oh-so-cute rhyming set, and that they are never used on screen.
Such details reveal much of Mr. LaBute's attitudes in this lacerating portrait of ugly secrets that lurk below the veneer of civilized relationships. His method of telling the tale is simple: Two couples, a single man and a single woman are the players; their bedrooms are the battleground; no one escapes unscarred.
We already recognize his fascination with everyday evil from last year's striking In The Company of Men. In Your Friends & Neighbors, he expands his vision to women, couples and friends. In his world, everyone is capable of loathsome acts of selfishness -- and he thinks that's pretty darn funny.
If the theory is that the only way to defeat horror is to mock it, perhaps he's right. But his precisely crafted portraits of people acting out their weakest, cruelest impulses through sex is so depressing -- and so convincing -- that it's hard to walk away from this movie without a sense of despair.
The movie is well made and very well acted. Jason Patric in particular is riveting as a woman-hating gynecologist without a clue about the depth of his own sickness. Aaron Eckhart, the handsome and breathtakingly cold-blooded villain of In the Company of Men, is almost equally as good as a superficial dimwit with a bad haircut and a dying marriage.
It is always difficult to offer advice on whether to see a movie like Your Friends & Neighbors. On one hand, it is a powerful achievement, skillfully written and packed with jaw-dropping moments of naked truth. On the other hand, it may be the most effective feel-bad movie of the year. In that respect, it brings to mind last year's Crash, a stunning artistic work that hardly bore watching.
So, proceed with caution. If you can stand to watch Your Friends & Neighbors, you won't forget it.
Your Friends and Neighbors is often a funny movie. But it is, as Pauline Kael said about A Clockwork Orange, appallingly funny.
There is a price to be paid for appalling. For having to spend 100 minutes with these people, the film will bite from you, if not a pound of flesh, an ounce or two.
It's the new film from Neil LaBute, who did In the Company of Men, and it felt to me at times overrelated to it. It is very much like it, as if this were an earlier draft of Company or a catch basin for what wouldn't fit into the earlier film.
To call the three men who are the center of this "friends" debases the word. Let's call these jerks workout buddies. LaBute structures them to represent degrees of male sexual narcissism and misogyny.
Jerry (Ben Stiller) is a college drama professor who wows the undergraduates with statements like "Shakespeare (pause) is a gift." His girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener) has had her fill of him and leaves -- among other things, he simply will not stop talking during sex. Barry (Aaron Eckhart) and wife Mary (Amy Brenneman) give him a consolation dinner, and Jerry has propositioned Mary before the dishes are off the table.
Eckhart, the chief predator in Company, is all but unrecognizable here as he makes Barry a soft schnook who is often impotent with Mary but never with himself. So it is more the depressive Mary's esteem who responds to clammy Jerry than Mary.
The piece of work is Cary (Jason Patric). During one scene, as he's talking on the phone, he takes the fetus from the uterus of an anatomical model and begins tossing it from hand to hand. After he hangs up, he notices how the plaster fetus fits his hand like a football. So he drops it and punts it. Cary's an M.D. When we first meet him, he's rehearsing his during-sex manner with a tape recorder and a mirror.
Nastassja Kinski plays art-gallery assistant Cheri, who will encounter the other characters in turn, but more as a literary device than a character.
Patric co-produced the film and picked the best role for himself. He is sensational, absolutely spine-chilling, in a steam-room scene, LaBute's linchpin sequence, in which the men take turns relating their best sexual encounters. Cary stops the show.
The film is full of astonishingly casual guys-together cruelties and cynicism; it drips with bile. "Love," says Terri flat-out, "is a disease."
LaBute's directorial style is to reproduce the mercilessly unblinking, staring-camera of Company and to give the actors all the time they need. This has an upside and downside. The approach produces moments of exquisite awkwardness, and extends the caustic bath. It also exacerbates the tendencies of LaBute's dialogue to pass over into the stylized neighborhood of Mamet.
Funny stuff, but you have to have a stomach for it.
Heed, heed the rating.
Rating: ***** [5 out of 5 stars]
This is not a date movie. Anyone who sees Ben Stiller in a comedy of relationship errors and thinks, ahh, I'll bring my girlfriend, should prepare for some can of worms to pop open. Despite the post-film hook-up of a couple of friends of mine, I would not recommend taking anyone you have designs on. You should recognize something of yourself or your partners in these characters.
From the man who wrote and directed the unapologetic In The Company of Men, Neil LaBute, comes another brutal slice of the unfortunate side of life. This movie is slicker and more professional looking than ITCOM but with the same discomforting honesty and incredible writing. Six people and a smattering of extras, a very few locations (some only seen from one camera angle repeatedly and in an incredibly narrow way) and an emphasis on character & dialogue stirred with frank talk of sex and irritation makes a hearty film. None of the characters ever refer to each other by name, which I didn't actually notice myself, it was pointed out to me - but it's the type of detail that contributes to the intimate web of tension among these six people.
Neighbors is graphic without showing anything, incredible yet credible. It's a testament to the actors in the movie that the whole thing doesn't come off as some heinous angsty anti-fantasy, but instead is totally engaging and morbidly fascinating. One speech, shot in one take, late in the film, is just amazing, and the actor in question sells it unreservedly. I don't want to tell you but one friend who saw it said the audience was utterly vocal in its awe.
The casting is great - and Jason Patric (Cary) (Lost Boys) has totally redeemed not just his own performance in Speed 2 but almost the whole movie (for paying for his acting lessons I guess). The under-famous always excellent Catherine Keener (Terri) is subtle and wonderful. Nastassja Kinski (Cheri) has not aged a MINUTE since Cat People and she's marvelous. I love Ben Stiller (Jerry) and he's totally against type and totally perfect here. NYPD Blue's Amy Brenneman (Mary) is layered and impressive. Aaron Eckhart (Barry) was in In The Company Of Men and he is utterly different in this movie - but, as in the first, he completely inhabits his character so you don't even get a sense of acting.
It's really good, OK? Just trust me on this.
Watching "Your Friends and Neighbors" is like watching something grow.
Not the proverbial grass, so emblematic of boredom, because the latest film from writer-director Neil LaBute is anything but dull.
It feels more like hunching over a microscope aimed at a petri dish of toxic microbes -- a compelling mixture of abhorrence and morbid curiosity. The small cast of characters -- three men and three women -- are mischievously named Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry, but because they never refer to each other by name in the script, they might as well be called Streptococcus, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola, Pfiesteria and E. coli. Instead of eating away at flesh, though, LaBute's generic laboratory creatures gnaw away at the gristle of contemporary romantic relationships.
Mary (Amy Brenneman) is a writer, unhappily married to Barry (Aaron Eckhart), a soft and ineffectual man who has no idea of his wife's alienation. He's friends with Jerry (Ben Stiller), a loquacious drama teacher whose live-in girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener) wishes he would just shut up in bed. Both of the men pal around with Cary (Jason Patric), a handsome bachelor whose corrosive egotism and misogyny approach psychotic levels. Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) is a lesbian who works in an art gallery where, one by one, she interacts with each cast member in a sequence of scenes that begin with identical dialogue.
By the film's bitter end, after an ugly series of seductions, betrayals, scathing rejections and desperate re-couplings, everyone ends up with someone other than whom he or she started with -- and, in some cases, with no one at all.
If these repugnant people were really your friends and neighbors, your time would be more profitably spent reading the real estate listings than the movie reviews. But for 1 1/2 hours in a darkened theater, the derailment of their unhealthy emotions makes for one compulsively watchable train wreck.
A playwright by training, LaBute has created another chamber drama whose intensity rivals that of his provocative first film, "In the Company of Men," which examined in equally clinical fashion the brutal behavior of the Corporate Male toward his fellow woman and man. And, like that controversial and polarizing film, there is no exterior shot establishing exactly where this hyper-claustrophobic nightmare is taking place.
It is precisely the blandness of "Your Friends and Neighbors's" anonymous setting that underscores LaBute's message that these monsters are everywhere. Yet the film's flat, unapologetic theatricality -- most scenes are staged against a static background such as a headboard, a booth in a restaurant, a sauna -- provides the viewer with a necessary measure of detachment by reminding us of its artifice.
The film's strength lies not in the verisimilitude of the distorted microcosm LaBute presents but in the psychological truth of that world's inhabitants. The talented cast of this twisted "Friends," to a man and woman, succeeds in conveying even the most complex and cancerous of feelings: self-loathing that has mutated into belligerence, impotent rage and malignant desire.
Patric (who co-produced the film) is to be particularly commended for taking on the odious role of Cary, a man whose diseased soul is as hideous as his body is beautiful. In one hackles-raising monologue, Cary tells Jerry and Barry of his participation in a barbaric high-school sexual assault on a boy named Timmy.
They're only words (if ones whose atrociousness beggars description) but, as the camera zeros in on Patric's pretty eyes, it becomes clear that any actor brave enough to reach into the septic muck of his subconscious and come up with such an unwholesome and thoroughly convincing beast can only be trying to tell us to look to our own hearts for what lurks there.
Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 out of 4 stars]
"Great, couldn't be better," is the universal refrain of the smiling characters that inhabit writer and director Neil LaBute's second film, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS. That they are actually anything but is no surprise given the filmmaker. His brilliant first picture, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, which was on numerous best-of-the-year lists last year, established a benchmark for human cruelty.
LaBute's latest battle of the sexes has the women as well as the men playing both predator and victim. YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS paints such a hopelessly bleak picture of relationships that we may want to become a nation of hermits. When characters share moments of joy, you can be sure that LaBute will soon pull the rug out from under them and that their little sexual flings will turn into horrific mistakes.
In his first film, LaBute had two men on the prowl to harass a single woman, a shy, deaf coworker of theirs. This time LaBute introduces six unique characters: a married couple, a couple living together, and two single people. They will all be devastated by the time this "immorality tale" concludes. The bleak story engulfs the audience's emotions but provides just enough humor to make it bearable. The ensemble casting is superlative so the emotional drain it puts on the viewers is well worth its toll.
As Cary, the story's only thoroughly evil character, Jason Patric has the easiest part. A doctor whose lesser depravities include drop-kicking a plastic fetus when no one is watching. Cary is closest in actions to IN THE COMPANY OF MEN's male characters. His steam room confession of a childhood atrocity forms the nadir of the story's tales of inhumanity.
Nastassja Kinski plays Cheri, an artist's assistant and the film's only completely sympathetic character. LaBute has the other characters coming into the art gallery where Cheri works and engaging in the same series of lines with her but with differing results.
As the nerdy drama teacher, Jerry, Ben Stiller is the story's most unsatisfying and ingratiating character. Stiller, last seen hilariously in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, makes Jerry into a bit too much of a caricature. A Woody Allen clone, Jerry drives his live-in girlfriend, Terri, crazy with incessant talking during sex. She feels like he is the weather channel announcer since he is obsessed with issuing constant updates during their trysts. When she finally finds a lover more to her liking, she tells her that it is the silence that she likes best about their lovemaking.
Catherine Keener, with her translucent acting style, plays Terri, a writer -- well, sort of. When Cheri asks if she might have ever read anything of Terri's, Terri answers, "only if you read the side of your tampon box." Terri is ashamed of her career, but Cheri finds it fascinating, turning over boxes in the grocery store to see if she can find any of Terri's work. They hit it off in one of the few romances in the story that has much real promise. Terri has a cynic's heart. "Love's a disease," Terri concludes. "Yeah, but it's curable," Cheri tries to console her.
At the fulcrum of the film is the married couple Mary and Barry, played by Amy Brenneman and IN THE COMPANY OF MEN's star, Aaron Eckhart. Their picture postcard perfect marriage is quickly shown to be a facade. They aren't happy with any part of their marriage, least of all their sex life.
On either side of this fulcrum are the single sex buddy scenes -- the women gather at lunch and the men in the locker room. Full of false bravado, their conversations quickly cut to the bone as reality begins to set in.
The male bonding, and to a lesser extent the female, comes back to the question of naming one's best ever sexual encounter. One guy confesses that he is the best that he has ever had. Other answers prove more troublesome and baneful.
Sometimes the characters' sexual adventures start off with hope and promise. One adulterous affair has the characters giggling gleefully like teenagers. They start their clandestine arrangement with the wonderful intimacy of a simple hug. LaBute, like a vengeful god, will soon make them pay for their indiscretions.
"Life is complicated," Cheri tells Jerry. "It's a funny world. People can't communicate." In LaBute's stories, life certainly is complex, and, when people speak, things only get worse. His characters' vituperative language is more cutting than knives. Rarely raising their voices, they manage to inflict mortal wounds with moments of relatively quiet terror. Biting social commentary wrapped in the thin veneer of a black comedy, his films have much to say even if they can be overwhelming. Unlike action films you forget in an hour, his movies will stay with you for years afterwards, provoking thought and reflection.
YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS runs 1:40. It is rated R for profanity, sex, and very mature themes and would be appropriate for teenagers only if they are older and mature.
The movie is just starting to open around the United States. In the San Jose area it will be playing at one of the Camera Cinemas beginning this Friday, August 28.
Last week on a radio talk show, an author was discussing his new book about how the workplace could be redesigned to feed the spiritual needs of employees. When people tell you everything is "fine," he said, the word should be thought of as an acronym for "feelings inside not expressed." That theory is proven again and again throughout "Your Friends and Neighbors," a vicious, not-for-the-faint-of-heart comedy-drama in which seemingly nice folks frequently gather in restaurants, bookstores and barsto reassure each other that everything in their lives and relationships is "fine." Once these same people get behind closed doors, however, they offer plenty of evidence to the contrary. If you saw writer-director Neil Labute's "In the Company of Men" last year, you know he's not exactly Mr. Feelgood and, if anything, this second effort is even darker and more nihilistic than "Men" because so many of the "Friends" are easily recognizible types. They don't, however, identify each other personally, so it's only by reading the press notes that we learn all their first names rhyme, almost as if they were sextuplets born to parents with a misguided sense of humor. Marrieds Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart, considerably paunchier and meeker than he was as the lady-killer in "Men") just bought a lovely old house but it's no love nest, thanks to their sexual incompatability. On the other hand, copywriter Terri (Catherine Keener) and drama teacher Jerry (Ben Stiller) do have sex, but Terri can't tolerate Jerry's habit of shouting out things like "harmony! harmony!" in the heat of passion. Outside of these two couples stand Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a free-spirited artist's assistant, and Cary (Jason Patric), a misogynstic gynecologist whose tales of vengeance against women wow Barry and Jerry. Though these people barely touch each other, in some ways "Friends" qualifies as one of the most violent movies of the year. Behind Cary's dull eyes lies an arctic wasteland and just listening to his eerie sermonettes about sex could give you frostbite. Scariest of all, this super-arrogant stud justifies much of the evil he perpetrates by telling his audience, "You'd have taken the same steps: Common decency dictated it." Terri is almost as nasty, a hawkish creature with a face by Modigliani and an attitude copped from a spoiled child. Asked by one of her lovers what part of their lovemaking she most enjoyed, Terri snarls, "the silence," making it clear that's the end of the discussion. "Nobody actually likes you, you know?" Cary tells Terri during a particularly heated exchange in a bookstore; the comment doesn't faze self-absorbed Terri in the slightest. As "Friends" rolls along, circumstances arise that cause everyone to re-think their lives and to take hasty action. In most cases, of course, they do exactly the wrong thing, and Labute, again employing the same detached point-of-view he showed in his first film, charts his characters' moral declines mercilessly. Everyone ends up crawling from the wreckage, some more battered than others, but none unscathed. The atmosphere here is sterile and deliberately calculated to focus attention solely on these six subjects, all of whom are well-detailed, especially by Keener, Eckhart and the quietly charming Kinski. Those who bristle at frank talk are likely to find listening to Labute's dialogue as unpleasant as having sandpaper rubbed against their ears for two hours andthe story's final twist should ensure no one leaves the theater whistling a happy tune. But if you can get past the shock value, there's a veritable banquet of food for thought being presented here, as well as a wealth of humor in the conversations. Particularly memorable are the ones that revolve around the ridiculous "watch bracelet" Barry buys his wife as a gift -- "they're quite big in Europe," he assures her -- and the almost-whispered argument between Barry and Mary in a supermarket. "We need to treat each other like meat," Barry tells her. "Didn't we read that?" As Mary walks away in dazed disgust, Barry can't resist getting in the final word: "It was your book!" he bleats. James Sanford