For those who thought Neil LaBute may have been a one-trick pony with his precocious debut film In the Company of Men, last year's controversial art-house/water-cooler black comedy about the evils of misogyny, think again. LaBute's second feature is another beaut, as Your Friends & Neighbors (Gramercy; 100 minutes; R) makes all the right moves to rabble-rouse moviegoers with the writer-director's caustic take on the endless battle of the sexes.
Indeed, if you're going to create a provocative cinematic experience, you'd better be upfront with audiences regarding the movie's intensity from the very first frame. And Friends' opening scene certainly sets the tone, as we meet a handsome stud (Jason Patric) from his sweaty waist up, humping away on a bed and filling the air with his dirty, intimate patter. Viewers soon realize, however, that there's no one underneath him and he's audiotaping his XXX-rated monologue (at one point he slaps himself in the face and seriously urges, "C'mon, let's pick up the pace."), ostensibly because practice makes perfect regarding his unwitting future dates.
Patric's narcissist is one of three selfish misogynists in Friends' six-person comedy of bad manners, in which no characters call one another by their names; only the end credits reveal their monikers, as LaBute has playfully bestowed the similar-sounding names of Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry. That's deliberate on LaBute's part, as he lends a universal, yet somewhat detached flavor to his mostly unlikable creations so that moviegoers can identify with some aspect of the many tics and quirks that he unleashes from the screen.
And Friends' other male cast members surely live up to the old all-men-are-jerks credo. Ben Stiller, a long way from his cutesy desperation in There's Something About Mary, plays a college theater professor who natters endlessly in pseudointellectual terms--even during moments of sexual activity--to hide his emotional impotence. LaBute has also cast his In the Company of Men star Aaron Eckhart as a schlumpy hubby, complete with a Moe Howard haircut, walrus mustache and considerably more poundage than the actor carried for his malevolent misogynist in Men. When asked who was the best lay he ever had, Eckhart's character says, "That's easy: It's me!" (in other words, the old Rosie Palma gambit), as he explains that even though his wife's terrific in the sack, nobody does it better than himself.
The female Friends fare slightly better than their dickhead male counterparts, even though their problems with the guys are exacerbated by their own emotional uncertainties. As the terse live-in lover of Stiller's chatty prof, actress Catherine Keener brings a marvelous snappy bitchiness to her role; during a non-erotic encounter with her boyfriend, she wearily remarks, "Any chance you're going to shut the f--- up?" In contrast, Eckhart's screen wife, played by the lovely Amy Brenneman (NYPD Blue), comes across as sheltered, alone and yearning to be hugged--and mistakenly believing that the professor's amorous overtures may be the cure for the excitement that's missing from her life.
This act of infidelity between Stiller and Brenneman provides the central plot catalyst for Friends' second half ("I'm very optimistic!" Stiller chirps in the hotel lobby), with various repercussions and retaliations affecting most of the cast members. Only Keener's role remains somewhat untouched; her lesbian relationship with a museum secretary (Nastassja Kinski, playing more of a beguiling symbol of possible freedom than a genuine person) happens so early in the film that this subsequent adulterous activity doesn't really alter her uptight character's inevitable dramatic arc.
LaBute often cuts to the chase in many scenes, so that practically his entire film deals with the sextet of stars talking exclusively about sex, be it at bars, restaurants, locker rooms or museums, with the running joke being that no one is really sexually satisfied. Still, there's an overwhelming sense of creepiness to the repartee that cuts to the bone, especially a revelatory moment during Patric's steambath sequence when he recalls that his best-ever sexual experience dealt with the utter humiliation of another person, followed by his warped reasoning that "common decency dictated the whole thing." Actor Patric performs this nasty monologue with such vapid cruelty that it's no wonder he agreed to co-produced Friends; it's one of the best things Patric has ever done, while also functioning as an audience apology for his involvement in Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Indeed, LaBute's box-office success with the no-budget Company of Men (a mere $25,000) enabled him to snare a much bigger cash outlay for the $5 million it cost to finance Friends, and it shows with his glossy widescreen images and his surefooted casting of more recognizable performers. Yet LaBute's minimalist style remains unchanged, as he allows for plenty of long takes so that his actors can really get into the rhythmic nuances of his frequently raunchy dialogue. And there are signs that he wants to be taken as an ambitious auteur, such as bracketing Friends with scenes of Stiller's drama teacher rehearsing a student production of a Wycherly play--an indication that LaBute likewise believes Friends is more of a 1990s version of a Restoration comedy.
LaBute keeps things scrupulously honest, too, even though it's sometimes hard to believe that Friends' male trio are actually longtime buddies (the director did a better job choreographing Men's sexual mind games). Yet when it comes to making thematic points about the male-female equation, LaBute's acid-tinged script nails both the gender politics and the ultimate emptiness with a nihilistic bravado unseen since Mike Nichols' 1971 hit Carnal Knowledge.
And the ensemble cast delivers the amoral goods big time, with clever running gags (wait for that climactic broken watch bit), detailed characterizations (Eckhart's clueless cuckold is both subtle and shaded) and often withering dialogue (yammering prof Stiller contemplates a breakup with Keener, but then reasons that "she pays half the rent, we just bought a TV...we have investments here.") Your Friends & Neighbors won't exactly restore anyone's faith in human nature, but its frank and funny portrayal of 1990s sexual malaise amply demonstrates why Neil LaBute is currently one of the cinema's most stimulating filmmakers.
It seems fair to say that our lives have become drenched with sex. It oozes off the shelves when we're buying clothes, cologne, underarm deodorant. It slides off the pages of magazines and into our laps. It radiates from our TV screens, where we watch talk-show guests make their sexual confessions during the day and the President of the United States make his sexual confessions in the evening. So maybe it's no surprise that, sexually speaking, we have reached our saturation point.
Hollywood, of course, has played no small role in this, either. With one gritty sex scene after another, the movie industry has pretty much rubbed our senses down to the nub, pandering to our most prurient interests. But how many films can you think of--mainstream ones, I mean, ones that you don't have to keep dropping quarters to see--that are devoted wholly to the subject of sex, in all its horrifying and unhandsome detail? In Your Friends & Neighbors, filmmaker Neil LaBute attempts to do exactly that. And in a way, it's something of a triumph. While his aim is to strip sex down to its pulpy core for everyone to see, what he really does--for perhaps the first time in motion picture history--is make sex seem really uninteresting.
The premise of Your Friends & Neighbors, for starters, is by no means an original one. Six white, upper-class urbanites mill around in the same tightly-wound social circle, just like Woody Allen and his troupe did 20 years ago. The men meet in bars, drink imported beer and complain about women. The women sit in living rooms, gripping glasses of chablis by the stem, and talk about their "best time." And through it all, everyone schemes, connives and quietly cheats on each other.
The idea of a sexual sextet might be good movie fodder, but LaBute's little hexagon falls apart quickly, because his characters are too flimsy to support it. First there's Jerry (played by Ben Stiller), a nice but nattering drama teacher who favors different techniques in bed than his live-in girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener) does. Then there's Barry (thesped by Aaron Eckhart), the nice but impotent husband of Mary (Amy Brenneman), who's so thoroughly repressed that not even a cake could rise if she were in the room. Rounding out the line-up are two singles, Cary (Jason Patric), a sociopathic gynecologist, and Cheri, a lesbian artist, brought to life by a coy and jaw-droppingly cute Nastassja Kinski. They're all identifiable types, certainly, but perhaps too identifiable. Rather than living, breathing people whose sexual exploits we might relate to, or at least be interested in, they are more like cardboard cut-outs. Because we only get to see the bedside aspect of their lives, they come across as nothing more than walking libidos, which makes for a moviegoing experience about as deep as Deep Throat.
It doesn't help matters, either, that LaBute (who also penned the script) goes to such lengths to make his players seem sophisticated, as well as tawdry. In an effort to give his characters more turgor, he feeds them plenty of high-tone dialogue, so we know that they're "smart." But this only results in impossible lines--lines that the actors can hardly get their mouths around--like "You and your f---ing semiotics" or "That guy reads his f---in' Byron." Few of us, it's safe to say, have friends or neighbors who sound like that.
But most of all, the greatest weakness of Your Friends & Neighbors is what's supposed to be its strength: its laser-tight focus on sex. Neil LaBute is known for his ability to startle, which he got down pat in his debut film, In the Company of Men. But here his attempts ring hollow. The opening sequences hemorrhage with sweaty humping, dirty talk and intricate descriptions of what's going where (though without any nudity, thanks to some discreet camera play). And yet when the dialogue finally begins, that's about sex, too. If Jerry isn't fighting with Terri about sex, he's talking about it with his mistress, Mary. And if Barry isn't lamenting his impotence, he's talking about masturbating. With the exception of one scene, in which Patric and Eckhart discuss "morality" (with all the subtlety of two vaudevillians), every single scene revolves around copulation. In the end, all it proves is that sex, when taken in large doses, simply loses its potency.
If it doesn't quite succeed in its mission, though, Your Friends & Neighbors still serves a purpose. It's celluloid proof that there is a limit, somewhere, to the power of sex in our lives. In an era filled with White House blow job jokes and $10 impotence pills, the shock is not new anymore. It might just be that the honeymoon is over. As Ben Stiller says to his drama class in the earliest frames of the film, "It's all about f---ing." And Your Friends & Neighbors certainly is. Maybe we should take pleasure in the fact that, finally, we want more than that.
NEIL LABUTE'S MUCH-lauded first film, The Company of Men, was an audacious investigation of corporate-inspired woman-hating that walked the line between sincerity and satire. It's about two mid-level salesmen who decide to woo and then ditch a beautiful deaf woman in order to pay back womankind for the chunks they'd taken from their egos. The guys' intense display of venom is not so much criticized in the film as simply laid bare. The Company of Men is a funny but also disturbing movie, a funhouse exaggeration of human weakness. LaBute's latest, Your Friends and Neighbors, again tries to combine comedy with an intense look at the dark side of human nature. Friends and Neighbors is less focused and less successful than The Company of Men, but it's still in many ways a funny and interesting film that highlights LaBute's great strength as a filmmaker: his astonishing mean-spiritedness.
The two couples who represent our friends or our neighbors (or both) are on the one hand Jerry and Terri (Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener), an unmarried couple living in the city, and on the other Mary and Barry (Amy Brenneman and Aaron Eckhart), who are married and live in the suburbs. Augmenting these core couples is Cheri, a sweet and beautiful artist's assistant (Nastassja Kinski) and Cary (Jason Patric), a misogynistic single guy who's nonetheless a magnet for the chicks. Throughout the film all the characters jump in and out of bed with each other joylessly, and the sing-song rhyming of their names seems to underscore LaBute's secret suspicion that they're all interchangeable, or perhaps different aspects of the same sad idea. The idea would be this: It's all about f---ing, and everyone is unsatisfied, either that or bored; people are somehow compelled to take lovers who are wrong for them, and in the end everyone is basically alone.
You see what I'm saying about the mean spirit. The interesting thing is how LaBute manages to be funny in the face of all this bad news. Your Friends and Neighbors reminds me of what Carnal Knowledge would have been like if it had been written by Woody Allen. The characters nurse neurotic tics that seem to have some basis in reality but then fly off into exaggeration. An opening scene shows Jerry making enthusiastic but curiously detached comments as he has sex with Terri ("absolutely," he moans) until Terri finally tells him to shut the f--- up. Terri (Keener plays her with superb bitchiness), suffering from relationship-discussion overload, goes on a quest to find an absolutely silent lover, in bed and out.
Jerry, meanwhile, seduces his friend's wife Mary, while her husband Barry and his buddy Cary go to the gym and talk about women as though they were a cross between race horses and imported beers. Cary is the most outsized character, wildly insecure and misogynistic (he drop kicks the plastic fetus from a medical model of a pregnant woman). In his viciousness he resembles the salesmen from The Company of Men, but even more exaggerated. One of the funniest and most eerie sections comes when he boasts of his best sexual experience to the other guys. It's a romanticized story of a homosexual rape with Penthouse-Forum style overtones (I don't know where the coach went to, but me and my four buddies were in the shower room...).
This speech is so outrageous and strange, and makes Cary look so completely psychopathic (whether we believe his story or not), that it sort of pushes the whole movie into the realm of fantasy, or at least a kind of suburban surrealism. A series of repeating visual themes contributes to the feeling of intentional strangeness. Still, so much of this movie is naturalistic that it never quite clicks stylistically, and at times the audience seemed confused. Or what was left of the audience; I've never seen a speech clear a theater as quickly as Cary's description of the rape did.
Clearly, Your Friends and Neighbors isn't for everyone. You don't want to bring your grandmother for instance. I saw it at a sneak preview where much of the audience was lured to the theater by free passes, and a lot of the folks who walked out probably had no idea of what they were getting into beforehand. This is a movie that would be enjoyed most by cosmopolitan thirty- or fortysomethings with rocky love lives--people who might actually be able to conceive of themselves as being friends and neighbors to the confused characters in this story, but who are grateful that they aren't.
In this time of diminished expectations, it's nice that Neil LaBute can still shock us with bad behavior. Just the premise of his first film, The Company of Men [sic], was enough to distress more sensitive viewers: two men, embittered friends, conspire to seduce and demolish a damaged woman. Some decried the movie as misogynist; others recoiled from its dead-on depiction of human malice. Most were shocked to find how easily they could laugh at its sour little abominations.
LaBute's new Your Friends & Neighbors is, for better and worse, more of the same. Expanding the cast of usual suspects from Company's scalene triangle to three pairs of unhappy men and women, LaBute sets in motion a prickly, demoralizing La ronde of sexual abusiveness -- both of self and of others. We learn nothing new about the nature of self-loathing or mean-spirited manipulation. But with its shrewd, uncompromising performances and LaBute's brutally insightful screenplay, Your Friends & Neighbors makes the obvious freshly depressing and hilarious.
Jason Patric as Cary (none of the rhyming character names is actually uttered in the film -- which makes the idea seem just that much more schematic) sets the tone before the opening credits uncoil. His muscle-rippling torso gleaming with sweat as he engages in seeming loveplay, he spits out the kind of rough sweet talk that vainglorious studs might think is music to a woman's ears. Like many of the film's best (and sometimes most dubious) scenes, this one ends with a deflating comic twist, revealing all of Cary's crass egotism and fraudulence.
Of course, when it comes to fraudulence, Cary at least is honest about it. Not so Ben Stiller's smarmy theater professor Jerry, who's first seen in a class demonstration of a Restoration drama that is also a thinly veiled seduction of one of his students. Beneath all the lace and powdered wigs, he winkingly pontificates, it's all about one thing: f---ing.
For LaBute, the opposite seems the case. His characters' preoccupation with sex conceals souls that are the flimsiest of fetishes. Even the simplest and least invidious of the sextet operate from motives that are banal, bankrupt, or deluded. Barry (Aaron Eckhart, who played the vicious Jason Patric counterpart in Company), pudgy and jovial and a bit dimwitted, insists that he's happily married to Mary (Amy Brenneman) but confesses early on to a co-worker that the best sex he has is with himself. "She's great, and all," he says about his wife, "but she's just not . . . me."
Needless to say, Mary's not that thrilled with Barry's bedroom performance either. And Jerry, frustrated by his flinty girlfriend Terri ("Can you just shut the f--- up?" she responds to his bedroom play-by-play -- "This isn't a travelogue"), plots to seduce the wife of his "best friend." Meanwhile, Terri takes a shine to "artist's assistant" Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), and Cary, unburdened by deviousness or superego, fills out the background with heinous one-night stands.
Patric, of course, gets all the jawdropping moments. He, Stiller, and Eckhart are an unlikely trio, but he appeals to his friends' watered-down brutishness by relating tales of gang rape and other atrocities. His deeds, however, seem bright spots compared to his pals' ineffectual perversity.
As for the women, Kinski's Cheri and Catherine Keener's Terri fare little better than in Company, being largely needy dupes. And after a while the inevitable, misanthropic punch line to every set-up palls, and repeated tag lines like "Is it me?" and "Is it a single piece or part of a collection?" get a little tired. Put together in a series of Jim Jarmusch-like blackout episodes delineated with all the flair of illustrations in a medical textbook, Your Friends & Neighbors at times comes off as a dyspeptic cartoon -- or a remake of a cartoonist's film. Mike Nichols did this all nearly three decades ago in his adaptation of Jules Pfeiffer's Carnal Knowledge, and to judge from LaBute's version, human nastiness hasn't changed much, it's only gotten more glib. LaBute has gotten more glib as well. It's time he moved on to humors other than bile.
Your Friends and Neighbors is the follow-up to writer-director Neil LaBute's provocative In the Company of Men, which rose from the festival circuit to become one of 1997's most talked about (if least seen) movies. LaBute's latest is more accomplished, expanding In the Company of Men's bitter love triangle to a hexagon and opening up the movie's single-file plot to encompass a range of acidic blackout sketches--some hilariously insightful, some eye-rollingly overwrought.
Ben Stiller stars as a drama professor trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a chilly advertising copywriter (Catherine Keener). Looking for a little warmth, Stiller propositions the journalist wife (Amy Brenneman) of his businessman best friend (Aaron Eckhart). Brenneman, unable to express herself sexually (despite her overeager husband), accepts the offer. Meanwhile, Keener finds quiet contentment in the arms of an attractive artist's assistant (Nastassja Kinski). Hovering above the fray is a predatory, aggressive doctor (Jason Patric), who provides a role model of unfettered masculinity to gym buddies Stiller and Eckhart.
The main selling point of LaBute's films is his pungent dialogue, which is as refreshingly blunt in Neighbors as it was in Men. LaBute's characters talk explicitly about their motives and desires, and there's a voyeuristic appeal to hearing Keener talk about her pathological need for silence during sex, or listening to Patric boast about how he humiliated some spiteful ex-lover. LaBute's dialogue has been compared to David Mamet, but it lacks Mamet's musicality, or the multilayered way that Mamet's words conceal more than they reveal. LaBute is more straightforward, and though his characters do use words to hurt, they don't really play games with the language--only with each other.
The real quality that LaBute brings to cinema is his way with actors. The cold heart of In the Company of Men was its star, Aaron Eckhart, whose portrayal of an opportunistic rat was as charismatic as it was oily. This time out, Eckhart plays a doughy schlub, and it's Jason Patric who gets to be the complete prick (almost literally). Ben Stiller's performance, meanwhile, is revelatory; in his other recent movies, he has been honing his on-screen cadence, letting his sentences wither because he can't find an impressive enough word or because he's afraid to say what's on his mind. His character in Your Friends and Neighbors approaches the world with a plaster smile, fumbling for what he imagines to be a normal human connection.
It would be convenient to say that the ultimate failure of Your Friends and Neighbors is LaBute's inability to cover the distaff side with the insight that he brings to the male. Admittedly, Brenneman, Keener, and Kinski play one-dimensional characters (although all three actresses add welcome nuance); but what's more troubling is that LaBute uses them as overly convenient foils, to make his points about the terminal dissatisfaction of long-term sexual partners. As in Men, the plot of Neighbors is disappointingly contrived, with the final couplings of the characters designed for maximum audience shock.
Just last week, I saw Simon Birch, which takes the painful moments of life--adolescence, losing a family member, accepting responsibility--and reduces them to easily digestible, sanitized, crowd-pleasing cuteness. Now there's Your Friends and Neighbors, which takes the mundane activities of life--dinner parties, shopping, working out at the gym--and exaggerates them into intense rounds of scathing psychological warfare. The former approach appeals to mainstream audiences, who generally fear being challenged; the latter approach tickles critics, who often praise such psychodramas as unflinchingly realistic. Both camps are, in their way, deluding themselves. LaBute's shoehorned commentary on modern life is as phony as the cross-stitched sentiments of Simon Birch. (And Simon Birch is as cynical as Neighbors, but that's a topic for another review.)
Still, LaBute has a gift that's too vivid to ignore. Yes, it would be nice if his characters weren't all surfaces--if every now and then we got a hint that his villains had weaknesses, and his heroes had spines. And yes, he'll be a better filmmaker when he can learn to turn his camera away from faces and let some visual details pick up the slack that his dialogue often leaves.
But there are moments in Your Friends and Neighbors of crystalline profundity--a woman sadly putting her rings back on after a disastrous attempt at an affair, a man futilely inquiring "Is it me?" when he's unable to masturbate--that make LaBute's career worth encouraging. Someday he'll relax enough to let his characters find their own way, and when he does, even he may be shocked by what they end up doing.
Writer-director Neil LaBute has a bigger budget and a slightly larger cast for his second feature, Your Friends and Neighbors, but that doesn't mean he has blunted his edgy misanthropy while moving up the moviemaking food chain. In fact, his new drama is in many ways an even nastier piece of work. In the Company of Men, LaBute's attention-grabbing debut effort, focused on the cruel conniving of two businessmen who manipulated an innocent bystander - a deaf temp worker - to "avenge" themselves for every indignity they ever suffered in professional or romantic pursuits. This time, LaBute cynically suggests that there are no innocent bystanders.
Jason Patric, one of the film's two producers, gives a mesmerizing and totally fearless performance as the worst among equals. He plays a cold-blooded gynecologist who at one point relieves his boredom by drop-kicking an anatomical baby model. In the opening scene, his character rehearses for sexual conquests by tape-recording words of encouragement to an imaginary lover. His narcissism is chilling, yet also darkly comical. After a while, however, it becomes obvious that the other people in his orbit - who, like him, are never identified by name - are scarcely less self-absorbed.
Ben Stiller is a college professor who likes to talk during sex, much to the outspoken annoyance of his partner (Catherine Keener). He makes a pass at the vaguely discontented wife (Amy Brenneman) of a close friend (Aaron Eckhart), but fails to rise to the occasion during an illicit rendezvous. Meanwhile, Keener drifts into an affair with a beautiful art-gallery employee (Nastassja Kinski). Not surprisingly, nothing good comes from any of this.
Your Friends and Neighbors is structured as a neo-Restoration comedy - one character refers specifically to playwright William Wycherly - but the humor is relentlessly bleak, and the judgments of human folly are unrelievedly harsh. Be prepared to squirm. And don't hate yourself for laughing out loud.
"Your Friends and Neighbors" is Neil LaBute's sequel to his cruel editorial about the irrelevancy of women in last year's controversial movie, "In the Company of Men." In a successful attempt to universalize his new movie, he leaves his characters nameless. This time, he draws men and women as a knot of selfish Yuppies whose empty shells are already disintegrating into dust. At least it's a more balanced picture. The women are as hollow as the men.
The angry women are emotionally abandoned in bed by their impotent men, who spend a lot of time in the health club with their best male friends talking about the best sex they ever had or fantasizing about the wonders that lie ahead. One of the women turns to another woman (Nastassja Kinski) for escape; another has an affair with a man.
In characteristically ugly fashion, Mr. LaBute introduces us to two loveless couples and a bachelor trapped in barren sex. Jason Patric opens the movie by recording his masturbation on tape for his later listening pleasure during workouts at the health club. He's a misogynist who is probably gay, but lacks the courage either to admit it or enjoy it. While Ben Stiller has sex with Catherine Keener, he carries on a Woody Allenesque dialogue with himself as she grips her pillow in rage and boredom. Aaron Eckhart and Amy Brenneman have a slightly different pattern. His pleasure is self-given, "when she's in the shower." "My wife's good, but she's not me!" When it's curtain time, these men can't perform.
What Mr. LaBute does very well is to convey the insignificance of these people by showing that they lie habitually-to themselves, to each other, to their mates. They lie in the stumbling, unfinished sentences of inept social performers in an artificial world. Note well the marvelous detail of the men rattling their ice cubes as they begin a lie, a tiny distraction that allows an extra moment of preparation.
Actor Ben Stiller creates an irritating whiner who is literal-minded, humorless, and in need of constant reassurance that nothing is his fault. Aaron Eckhart's husband is an especially empty vessel. Jason Patric's bachelor is a tower of articulate brutality. Pounding on the bathroom wall, he shouts at a woman whose menstrual blood has stained his 380-count designer sheets. He completes a vicious verbal rape of Stiller's girlfriend in a bookstore. And when he reveals his "finest sexual moment," it is a lyrical memory of a high-school gang rape inflicted on an unpopular boy.
If it's true, as common wisdom has it, that men think of sex every 12 minutes, Neil LaBute and Kenneth Starr are telling us that, in fiction and in fact, most men lie habitually about sex to their mates and to each other. What this says about the women who share their beds is the baffling question that hangs in the putrid air of this movie.
No one in Neil LaBute's new film calls anyone else by name. Instead, they talk to each other indirectly, gesturing, glancing and looking away, suggesting but not really revealing their feelings or intentions. Sometimes they're hiding what they think, being polite, being ill at ease, sometimes lying outright. They're hardly ever saying what they mean.
You could say that the characters in Your Friends & Neighbors interact like regular people, pretending intimacy, yearning for it, supposing what it must be like. Not calling each other by name works two ways: it suggests they are so close that one of them need only raise an eyebrow or shrug a shoulder to indicate an understanding ("I'm talking to you"). At the same time, this lack of direct recognition implies a distance, the idea that none of these close friends really wants to know anything about anyone else, except perhaps in the context of gossip.
But they also interact like movie characters, written precisely, with choreographed rhythms of speech and movement. There are six of them, and they talk in groups of twos and threes, with an occasional foursome, which is really two twos, jockeying for positions. The men are played by Jason Patric, Aaron Eckhart and Ben Stiller; the women by Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman and Nastassja Kinski. They're all good-looking, well-educated and unhappy. And they take out their unhappiness on each other, sometimes intentionally, mostly not.
Keener and Stiller are a couple, as are Brenneman and Eckhart (last seen as the unscrupulous Chad in LaBute's first feature, In the Company of Men). Stiller's cerebral, permanently agitated university drama professor (he's shown working with his students on a William Wycherly play, full of 18th-century drawing room dissolution), is rejected by Keener, who complains that he talks too much during sex. He approaches Brenneman, whose tumbling hair, pale complexion and pretty Calvin Klein blouses suggest her capacity for romantic self-deception: she falls for Stiller's breathless declarations of "optimism"; at least he's not so overtly self-obsessed as her husband and Stiller's best friend, Eckhart, who confides in an office-mate that his best sex is with himself. When she goes to the bathroom, "that's when the real fireworks begin."
Actually, the real fireworks, his or anyone else's, never occur where you can see them. The film is focused on the brilliant and deficient self-delusions that everyone practices, the performances that get them through their days. Each develops a system of survival, occasionally spiteful, more often just careless, overly concerned with assuaging his or her own immediate pain. Co-producer Jason Patric's character is the worst, a straight-up cad endowed with heartbreaking beauty. A hard-bodied workout-aholic, he spends most of his time in the gym, toning himself for the multiple sexual encounters he uses to assert what he considers power. That his power is so plainly superficial and derived from a desperate, if prosaic, masculine insecurity is incidental. He's only the extreme version of everyone else.
You first see him humping his bed, sweating and breathing hard, timing himself, practicing. He's recording his monologue, checking himself. In the end, he's pleased with his performance: "If I was a chick," he tells himself, toweling off, "I'd believe that." Believability is important for him. More important than reality or truth. And while he's the most outrageously cynical and cruel character here, his extremity also betrays the others' less innovative, clumsier offenses. Keener's character, for example, presents a subtler problem (and Keener is fantastic in the part). She's tough, bright, seductively enigmatic. Tired of Stiller's double punch of uncertainty and narcissism, she turns to the gentler, needier Kinski, an artist's assistant whom she meets in a gallery. The literal frame of their first encounter is repeated, so that Kinski meets each of the other characters while standing in front of a painting that you never see. This means you can only imagine what they're staring at, just as you're invited to consider what they're thinking, as they all stumble through similar introductions, admiring the art or not, behaving unpleasantly or not, coming on to Kinski or not.
This specific repetition, made so clear in these matched scenes' verbal and visual compositions, might serve as a metaphor for the film's other exchanges. No one is able to get a rendezvous quite right, whether planned or unplanned, sexual or platonic, in a hotel room or in a used bookstore. All of their conversations display some measures of intelligence, malevolence and cluelessness. The visual decor for each meeting accents the emptiness, duplicity or tension of the moment: for instance, the three women gather in a restaurant with a painting of pugilists in the background; the men spar verbally in the sauna. In each instance, the language--pointed or evasive--elicits certain responses from you, like movie characters are supposed to do. They make you feel sympathetic, nervous, exasperated, sad or discouraged.
What they don't make you feel is good. The film refuses to give you a hook, a character to like or identify with. In that sense it one-ups In the Company of Men, which last year won the writer-director all kinds of praise for its depiction of two low-level white-collar guys who take out their job-related frustrations on a deaf secretary, whom they seduce and dump, with extravagant cruelty. The new film doesn't even give you the option of the "innocent" victim for identification: everyone in the film is a willing or unwilling dupe, a self-conscious or willfully ignorant churl, or at the very least, a miserable individual turned incapable of kindness.
LaBute has a gift for writing these kinds of characters, those who are recognizable but with whom you would never admit an alliance. His is a narrow range, covering middle-class, white, college-educated workers. But it's an exact one, refined to razor-sharpness. Still, it's not likely that his film's viewers will see themselves here (the title already lets you off: they're not you, they're someone else). In the case of Company of Men, it was too easy to dislike the loser-execs, to be glad and smug when they seemed even vaguely punished, emotionally if not materially. Here the final edge is a little finer, the eventual couples are probably wrong, but they don't know what you know, they haven't seen what you've seen. So it's understandable, if maddening, that they choose so badly.
Appropriately, you don't learn any of their names until the final credits, and then, it turns out that they all rhyme: Terri (Keener), Cary (Patric), Jerry (Stiller), Mary (Brenneman), Barry (Eckhart) and Cheri (Kinski). It's a nasty bit of a joke, I suppose, implying that they're all childishly alike and more or less interchangeable, with names that are so alike that they're equally easy to forget and remember.
Rating: ** [2 out of 4 stars]
I think I would rather spend time with my own friends and neighbors than watch "Your Friends & Neighbors," a film directed by Neil LaBute. The sex-craved characters are just too out there for me. I wanted to punch Jerry (Ben Stiller) who likes to talk during sex - although it did provide for some funny moments later in the film when his talking still haunts him. Bottom line: This movie is like watching a bunch of immature teenagers who grew up and became immature adults.
Roger Ebert said, "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."
There is one aspect of the film I enjoyed that took place in an art museum. Various characters, shown in separate scenes, stand next to Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), an artist's assistant, and talk about a painting. The dialogue is similar in every shot and becomes funnier with each twist. Those scenes alone might make this film worth renting.
While Ebert says "it's the kind of date movie that makes you want to go home alone," I think I'd rather just stay home.
A young man lying in bed is caressing the breast of a young woman lying next to him. "How does that feel?" he asks. End of the film.
It's the perfect finish. This quasi-clinical tone, this sense of sex as physical therapy, dominates the whole picture. It opens with that same young man practicing the moves of intercourse, not masturbating, and it progresses in that gymnastic mode right to the breast-fondling finish. Your Friends and Neighbors (Gramercy), written and directed by Neil LaBute, continues the exploration of contemporary sexual attitudes that he began last year with his extraordinary In the Company of Men. Now LaBute takes the inquiry further, into almost laboratory-controlled coolness.
It's possibly inaccurate to talk flatly of LaBute's first and second films because we're told that he wrote both screenplays at about the same time. But the one that he made first is a contrast with the new one. In the Company of Men concerned the figurative revenge that two young men wreak on women by wooing a young woman individually and abandoning her together. The vindictive prank is spoiled by the inception of deep feeling in the young woman and in one of the young men.
Not in Your Friends and Neighbors. No feeling irrupts here except sexual desire. LaBute said that his first film was inspired by Restoration comedy; now LaBute takes that Congreve-Vanbrugh view even further--people who think themselves masters of the universe without realizing how constricted that universe is. This time we go to frigid extremes.
A sort of gavotte, then, mostly horizontal, involving two young married couples, along with a young man and a young woman, in which partners are changed. The plot doesn't need sketching. Let's just say that the setting is urban and that each of the two couples has dissatisfactions and itches, and that each individual in the quartet is in some measure emotionally slothful while sexually vain and demanding. The two single people act as variant partners, including a lesbian interlude for one of the wives.
Your Friends and Neighbors is about ego and gratification. Our era was called the age of narcissism by Christopher Lasch; LaBute proposes the age of hedonism. Instead of the infant bawling for his toy, with pleasure as his sole standard, we have adults crying for sex, with pleasure as their prime standard. The net effect of the film is rather frightening, predictive of an emotionally arid world.
LaBute's directing here is somewhat different from his first film. He now uses more editing, more intercutting within a scene, less crystallizing of a scene in one continuous shot. He likes recurrent visual themes. For instance, the single woman works in an art gallery, and every one of her encounters with people in the cast takes place in that gallery in the same shot, the same framing. LaBute's dialogue reminds us that, along with that of such others as Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch and Whit Stillman, the sheer writing, these days, of some American films is remarkably fine.
LaBute has cast his film to match, with people who can handle his dialogue neatly. As one of the husbands, here is Ben Stiller again, selling his gently aggressive urbanity. Aaron Eckart, who was the nastier of the two men in LaBute's first film, is softer here as the other husband. Jason Patric is suitably dangerous and repellent as a freelance stallion. Nastassja Kinski, her being seemingly refreshed, is supple as the art-gallery woman. Amy Brenneman is sufficiently uneasy as one of the wives. A special bow to Catherine Keener, the other wife. In Walking and Talking and Living in Oblivion, among other films, she showed a unique quality, an ability to treat candid material with almost surgical precision, cool but fundamentally comic. That quality flowers here.
The Governess (Sony Pictures Classics) has a fascinating premise which it quickly disregards. Set in early Victorian Britain, it opens with immersion in the lives of well-to-do London Jews. Under the credits we hear a cantor, and our first view is of top-hatted men in a synagogue, with women in the balcony looking on. We move to the luxurious home of the da Silva family, members of the congregation. Soon after, the father meets a sudden, violent death. The older daughter, Rosina, must find work. Well-educated, she gets a post as a governess with a very upper-class gentile family who live on a Scottish island. (How her 20 pounds a year, an accurate figure for the time, are going to support her family is not clear.)
Rosina has obtained her job by using an assumed gentile name, Mary Blackchurch, and as Miss Blackchurch she is welcomed into the huge house. She takes charge of the family's small daughter, under the supervision of the haughty, frustrated mother, and she occasionally glimpses the father who, in a wing of the house, is busy with his scientific work.
Primed, we look forward to a drama in which Rosina's true identity is discovered and, more interestingly, Rosina suffers the effects of the masquerade on herself. But there's not one word or whisper about any of this. What we get is a romantic drama, an affair that she has with the head of the house (as she helps him develop the science of photography on which he is experimenting) and a subsequent emotional tangle with his son just back from Oxford. Although her true identity eventually comes out, she leaves the house because of the romantic tempest, not because of who she is. The father attempts to woo her again in London, but she declines, not because she is Jewish, but because she doesn't want him any more. In short, through all of the central story, she might as well have been the Anglican she pretends to be. Her Jewish self plays no part.
Sandra Goldbacher wrote and directed the film, her first; and though the script lacks unity and point, the dialogue as such is well-wrought. Best of all, Goldbacher has an extraordinary eye. With Ashley Bowe's camera--and with the beauty of the Scottish isle--she lavishes lovely pictures on us. One is unforgettable. In a long shot in late afternoon, we see a stone pier with Rosina at one end of it, just arrived, waiting with her bags. To her slowly comes a one-horse shay. Exquisite.
As Rosina, Minnie Driver is commanding, easy, and vivid in period style. Lately she has appeared in American films, such as Good Will Hunting; back in her native Britain she is being used to her, and our, greater advantage. And there's further evidence here of Tom Wilkinson's power. His most recent performance in a long career was as the Marquis of Queensberry in Wilde, where he growled along to a striking portrait; as Rosina's employer and lover, Wilkinson creates a sincere man troubled by uncertainties and conditioning.
Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 out of 4 stars]
When's the last time you saw a non-Woody American film about sex and relationships that didn't take any easy steps? This unusual comedy is about individualism in our society, and mostly the way it can turn us against one another, as if even a wife or a buddy was an opponent and you had to take any chance to backstab them. Yeah, this is a bitter look at our times, but it might be truer than you'd think. This is the second film of auteur Neil LaBute, whose "In The Company Of Men" is one of the most powerful films of the 90s. His new picture ain't as riveting, but it's still very insightful and funny.
Jason Patric stars as a womanizing jerk who's extremely self-centered. The worst thing might be that he's all aware of his contempt for people and his undying love for himself. This is a man who'll do anything to improve his situation. He treats women like sh--, and he doesn't have much respect for guys either. Patric delivers a tour de force performance as this absolute scumbag, and you won't forget his extended monologue about the best sex he ever had. Ben Stiller plays a college drama coach who believes he's an intellectual and hence never stops babbling and over-analyzing events, especially his relationships with women. He even does that during sex, and that really pisses off his chick, Catherine Keener. She's the cynical, frustrated type woman who can't stand other people's whining. Amy Brenneman's character is the opposite. Gorgeous and soaked with apple pie niceness, she still has lots of issues and a desperate need for affection. Maybe it's understanding she needs, and it's certainly not her husband who will help. He's interpreted by Aaron Eckhart, an amazing character actor who's unrecognizable as an ugly-haired, mustache-sporting loser who's as self-centered as his two gym buddies. And then there's Nastassja Kinski as a neurotic, self-questioning art-gallery assistant.
As you might have guessed, this is a movie all about the characters, and thanks to Neil LaBute's brilliant writing, it generally works. He gets his cast to deliver performances so great that he can afford not to focus much on camerawork and production design. The whole film is set in ordinary places, and the camera doesn't do much but stay there and watch with its unblinking eye these immoral people. In fact, the only "cinematic" piece in the film is the series of scenes in which different characters meet Kinski. The dialogue is always the same, but each person puts a different twist on it. It's a great way to show how useless and repetitive small talk is, yet you can still get a good idea of what someone is about. I also dig the use of a strings-quartet cover of Metallica's Enter Sandman over the opening credits. Well, "Your Friends & Neighbors" is definitively a great film. The only problem is that it's neither a take-no-prisoner flick like LaBute's debut, nor is it as endearing as Woody Allen's best human comedies. Still a film not to be missed.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
Neil LaBute's new film, Your Friends & Neighbors, features the same actor (Aaron Eckhart) who played the office villain in LaBute's brilliant debut effort, In the Company of Men. But the Machiavellian predator of the first film has degenerated into a flabby, dull-witted middle-manager, and the symbolic moral extremes and shocking plot twists of the first film have been replaced by a loosely structured narrative that focuses on the sterile marriages, hollow affairs and narcissistic self-absorption of six aging and cynical yuppies.
Eckhart's wife is played by Amy Brenneman, who renders a skilful, subtle portrait of a shy woman who is lonely in her marriage and anxious and unsatisfied in her affairs. Others in the circle of friends include an odious and effete drama professor (Ben Stiller), his callous and bitter girlfriend (Catherine Keener), a vicious, womanizing doctor (Jason Patric) and a beguiling art gallery assistant (Nastassja Kinski). All of the friends eventually become romantically entangled with other members of the circle, but the affairs tend to merely intensify their inner feelings of loneliness and isolation.
In his production notes, LaBute says that he was aiming for the distanced tone and digressive storylines of a French art film, and to a certain extent he has succeeded. The acting is uniformly impressive, and the script never stoops to sentimentality or simplistic resolutions. Though he is obviously not trying to replicate the plot twists and moral extremes of his first film, their absence is felt, nevertheless. In particular, the presence of a wholly naive and innocent character, like the deaf woman of In the Company of Men, would have provided an illuminating counterpoint to the collection of disillusioned professionals, and brought the movie closer to the moral complexity of the French film The Rules of the Game, which LaBute repeatedly hints is one of his chief inspirations.
Your Friends & Neighbors is the second film from talented Writer/Director NEIL LABUTE, who scored critical applause for his first and previous film, In The Company of Men. Most viewers of the first film thought it was a creative and well-made film that took a politically incorrect and completely naked view of predatory male sexuality and the damage it causes not only to the women in their lives, but to themselves as well. It was a cutting expose of the worst in the "baby boomer" or "me" generation in which the men who were the focus of the story psychologically abused a deaf woman for their own sexual and sadistic amusement. From the point of view of showing us the uglier side of these characters, the film seemed to be about as bad as it could get. A well done character, or lack-of-character story about two disgustingly self-involved men. It just got worse!
LaBute, who I had the pleasure of meeting a while back, has done it again, with a vengeance. When he and I met to discuss In The Company of Men, I expressed how good I thought his work was though I also likened it to viewing a car wreck. You know, you don't want to look at the carnage, but you can't look away. Well, believe it or not, you may have to rent In The Company of Men to lighten your spirits after viewing Your Friends & Neighbors. Don't get me wrong, this is another exceptionally fine piece of writing and filmmaking by Mr. LaBute. He has an uncanny ability, however, to strip away any remnant of sugarcoating as he shows us to ourselves in our worst possible light. This is not Woody Allen, but more like Jules Feiffer's early 70s equally painful, and very caustic comedic look at love, lust, and male insensitivity, Carnal Knowledge--but without the "sweetness." Oh, you didn't think there was any? Compared to Your Friends & Neighbors, Carnal Knowledge is dipped in a thick, chocolate layer and covered with a thin candy shell.
Your Friends & Neighbors features an exceptional ensemble cast including: AMY BRENNEMAN, AARON ECKHART, CATHERINE KEENER, NASTASSJA KINSKI, JASON PATRIC and BEN STILLER, fresh from his recent success with There's Something About Mary. The film is called "a modern immorality tale." It takes an unflinching look at a generation X-er's idea of relationships. And it's bleak. One of the characters sums it up when he confesses that the best sex he's ever had was with himself. All of the characters are involved in complex and crossed patterns of not relating to anyone including their friends, spouses, and lovers. The complexities come from the selfish using of others with no consideration of who is hurt, nor of loyalty to spouse or friend. In another scene we see one of the men apparently engaged in making love to a woman who is just out of our view. It turns out that he is alone and is "rehearsing" lines to use on the next woman with whom he has a sexual encounter. And this may be the moral high point for this character.
Hide the razor blades and other dangerous implements before you see this one, because you may decide that if this represents our contemporary society (and watching current news reports on life in Washington D.C. seems to support that conclusion), then you might be compelled to want to end it all. But seriously, this is an insightfully-funny film. The audience, when I viewed it, laughed all the way through it. But I couldn't help feeling that the laughter was as much out of recognition as it was humor. Unless you are an awful lot like the folks in this film, and even if you are, I think Your Friends & Neighbors is going to make you very uncomfortable. But it does it without ever slipping into any self-righteous moralizing. In fact, it seemingly makes no judgements and comes to no conclusions whatsoever. This it leaves to you. Director NEIL LABUTE has made a Carnal Knowledge for the 90s. It's rated "R," and it's funny, compelling, disturbing and well-worth seeing. Be warned, but I do recommend it.
After reading the movie preview in Maxim Magazine about a month ago for Your Friends and Neighbors, excitement began to build about the opening of the film.
Okay, perhaps it piqued some interests for the wrong reasons: Nastasia Kinski supposedly had a scene with another chick.
Anyway, after an hour of Seinfeldesque dialog (minus the comedy) and witnessing only Kinski getting a peck of a kiss, there was nothing left to do but leave the theater supremely disappointed. Director Neil LaBute's debut, In the Company of Men, led many to believe that this would be a terrific film showing just how cutthroat and competitive people can be.
This film was about sex, only there wasn't any sex in the film itself. It was, no kidding, all talk. Dialog based movies can be good; watch Swingers if that's your thing. The movie still could have been good enough to keep the audience in the theater but it had no redeeming qualities. The actors and their performances were good, but bad dialog and generally poor writing made watching it unbearable.
The talented cast includes Ben Stiller, the aforementioned Kinski, Jason Patric, Catherine Keener and Aaron Eckhart. Despite the players, sitting in the theater was like watching the Oakland Raiders play. There was a lot of talk, even more talent, but they didn't do anything.
Independent films can be great, but this movie is not. It falls in the same category as another failure this summer, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the most trite film about drug use ever made.
It is not even worth rating this film on a 1 to 10 scale. Just don't go see it. Rent The Big Lebowski or go see There's Something About Mary again.
Scales of Justice
- 2.35:1 Anamorphic
- Full Frame
- Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
- Theatrical Trailer
- Cast and Crew Bios
- Filmmaker's Commentary
Now I remember why I'm single...
Your Friends And Neighbors is from the same folks who did In The Company Of Men, which I previously reviewed. Given the excellence and controversial nature of that film, I was very much looking forward to checking out this one. And I was not disappointed, because their second effort is an incredibly well done piece of work that, believe it or not, goes even deeper into the weirdnesses that are love and life.
Filmed very quickly and for a small budget, this film has only six speaking parts and, like In The Company Of Men, is basically a play presented in movie form. It's almost all indoors, takes place in some indeterminate place and time, and deals purely with the interplay of relationships and emotions of a small group of people. And, though I harp on this too much, it is yet more solid proof that a great movie can be made for a small amount of money and in a short amount of time.
The main characters in this play are the married couple Mary and Barry, and their old friends Terri and Jerry who are living together. The names might sound a little silly, but in actual fact their names are never mentioned anywhere in the entire film anyway. You only see them in the credits, so it doesn't really matter. Mary is played by Amy Brenneman (Heat, "Judging Amy") and her husband Barry is played by Aaron Eckhart (In The Company Of Men, Molly). These two have settled into their lives, physically settled in fact. He's gained weight, wears whatever she says to wear, and they almost certainly drive a mini-van, though you never see them do so. They have basically no remaining sex life whatsoever, and he can pretty much only get satisfaction via masturbation, failing to rise to any other occasion. She is needy beyond belief and living in a 60-cycle hum sort of rut.
Their friends Jerry, played by Ben Stiller (Reality Bites, There's Something About Mary), and Terri, played by Catherine Keener (Living in Oblivion, Walking and Talking, The Real Blonde), are one of those couples that you can't imagine ever got together. He's a professor who teaches acting, loves Shakespeare, and can't stop analyzing their relationship in great detail. She's pretty much an ice queen who can't stand his talking, in bed most of all. They are coming apart at the seams, and their sex life is completely on the blink as well, consisting mostly of "grudge sex."
During a visit after a yearlong break, Jerry and Terri come over for dinner. As they are getting ready to leave, Jerry comes on to Mary, telling her that he has thought about her continuously for the last year and that he wants to see her. After a little resistance, Mary allows that she has thought about him as well and they arrange to meet. This meeting begins the spiraling crash of all of the relationships involved, with much loathsome and pathetic events along the way. Another player in the game is Cary, played by Jason Patric (Sleepers, Rush, The Lost Boys). Cary obviously has some sort of double reverse Oedipus Complex. He is extremely vindictive towards woman, a reptilian sort of predator who, in his own mind at least, is protecting manhood against the slings and arrows of female treachery. He is an old friend of Jerry and Barry's, and his character is one of the most interesting of all. He is cold and calculating to a fault. He does things like practice his sexual patter, record it, then review it later (while working out) to figure out how to make it more effective. In a strange way though, he is like an animal or reptile, in that emotion doesn't enter into the equation. He kills only for food so to speak.
I won't give away any more of the story or characters, since you'll want to experience the pain yourself. But I definitely want to say something about the overall subject matter. This film has some of the most painfully funny and embarrassing sexual relationships and situations I've ever seen on film. They are never overly explicit, just as uncomfortable and emotionally castrating as real life can be. Ben Stiller in particular is ever so good at the squirming weasel sort of character that gets into situations that actually make me squirm from the level of embarrassment.
The acting on this disc is superb. I'm sure it was an actor's dream, with lots of great situations, long takes, lots of dialogue, heavy subtext, i.e. plenty of room to stretch the acting legs. In particular Catherine Keener kills as the ice queen. Also, Amy Brenneman really impressed me. I'd only seen her before in Heat, but she really got to branch out a lot more here. Aaron Eckhart, who completely transformed his character and his body physically from his role in In The Company Of Men, also gives an excellent reserved performance. All of the performances for that matter are more about what's not said than what's said, well except for Jason Patric's character, who says exactly what's on his mind. They are standard, repressed, professional white people, full of stress, and either passive aggressives or co-dependents.
The anamorphic video is quite crisp and well done. As in In The Company Of Men, the set design is full of understated but saturated colors. It looked consistently good throughout as I remember. There is a 5.1 audio track but this film is a complete talky so it wouldn't have been missed much if not there. But it was well recorded and the dialogue was easy to understand.
The only extra of note is a commentary track, but it's a quite good one. It features the writer/director Neil LaBute, and the producer. Actually, Jason Patric also co-produced the film as well as acting in it. Only a couple times do they veer away from the action onto tangential topics. For the most part, they do an excellent job of shedding enlightenment on the subject.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't say much bad about this one. Maybe it wasn't far enough of a jump from the writer and director's previous work, but it definitely was not a retread. If you hated In The Company Of Men, this one is of much the same character, though the story line is much more of a balanced story in terms of man vs. woman. Everyone gets their licks in in this one.
Personally, I loved this film. What can I say, I like watching movies that prove that all those people I see together are secretly living in a hellish nightmare of ennui and sexual betrayal. This makes it much easier to believe that I'm really making the right decision by being alone. If you enjoy challenging films that rub your face in the danger and degradation inherent in opening up to others, in a darkly funny way, then you have to see it. It's more approachable than In The Company Of Men and both women and men will like it equally I think. I wouldn't recommend it for those couples about to go ballistic or experiencing erectile disfunction, since it will probably be the last film you ever see together. But if you are secure in your insecurities, it would be a great date movie for couples into more cerebral drama/comedy material.
Definitely acquitted, and invited over to meet my daughter. Okay, I don't have a daughter yet, but you know what I mean. These characters are painfully real, and we need more of this kind of reality, in my opinion.
Neil LaBute is a talented writer and director and I noticed it right away when I saw his directorial debut, "In the Company of Men," a lacerating black comedy about man's inhumanity towards women, and men. I've seen the film twice and I was both shocked and gratified by the film's depiction of its characters, especially the insensitive, insulting Chad, marvelously played by Aaron Eckhart. "Your Friends and Neighbors" is LaBute's second effort, and it is less angry and less intoxicating than it should have been. I am shocked to say this, but LaBute has crafted a fairly, dare I say, tame and flat film of little consequence.
The film begins with people who have no interest in developing healthy relationships with each other. We see the contemptuous, masculine, arrogant Cary (Jason Patric) who prepares for a date by practicing his lines in bed while writhing with faux pleasure. There's also Man (played by Ben Stiller) who tries desperately to please his wife (Catherine Keener) but she doesn't like it when he talks while copulating - "F---ing is not a time for sharing". When she has an affair, she coldly states that the best part of sex is the silence. In retribution, Man pursues another guys wife (a bland Amy Brenneman), who wants desperately to find a man who can maintain an erection. Brenneman's husband (played by a porcine, mustached Aaron Eckhart) can't seem to satisfy his wife so he masturbates, even while she's in bed - he gets more pleasure from himself than with anyone else. However, when they go shopping together, he insists that the best method of resuscitating their sex life is to "treat each other like meat".
"Your Friends and Neighbors" is LaBute's attempt to show that relationships have no saving grace, and that the partners gradually grow bored with each other. Unfortunately, his characters lack sting and depth - they are glamorous nobodies wafting through their existence with no desire or interest in each other. This is quite a cynical point to make, but LaBute infuses this tale with a static charge that renders everything as flat and monotonous. The movie is devoid of color and humor, and the characters emerge as vapid ciphers. Compare this to Woody Allen's "Manhattan" and "Deconstructing Harry" and you'll see that Woody goes well beyond the primary cynicism - he explores what makes his characters tick.
As a writer, LaBute does have some witty, anarchic moments, though. There is the running gag of an art-gallery assistant (Nastassja Kinski) who stares at the same unseen art object with each of the main characters - they ask her the same questions with the same exact responses. Then there's the undeniably well-cast Jason Patric (doing some of his best work since "After Dark, My Sweet") as the meanest, least likable character since Chad from "In the Company of Men." Patric has two virtuoso scenes: one set in a locker room with his friends where he confesses that a homosexual encounter in high school was the best lay he ever had, and another scene where he mutilates Keener with such piercing words that she is reduced to tears - an interesting scene because it shows that Keener may not be such a frigid woman after all.
Beyond some frank sexual talk and manners, Your Friends and Neighbors is dull to sit through and the characters are ill-defined and impossible to care about. LaBute is still a talent to watch for but he needs to imbue his characters with some degree of humanity so that his dialogue can cut some fairly deep wounds in all of us. "In the Company of Men" could have been a sick joke about teasing adeaf woman and then dumping her for the sake of revenge, but LaBute was after bigger game and revealed some strong character personalities. "Your Friends and Neighbors" is about people who screw each other with no rhyme or reason. It's just a sick joke.
LaBute follows up his brutal 1997 debut IN THE COMPANY OF MEN with this broader exploration of relationships, both sexual and interverted.
Six people's lives intertwine (we never learn their names until the end of the film) in complex and unexpected ways: Stiller and Brenneman have an affair behind the back of her husband, the oafish Eckhart, and his wife Keener. In the wings are lesbian Kinski and the cruel bisexual Patric.
These aren't people you'd want to be friends with. Like COMPANY, LaBute has populated this film with the sorts of people who think horrible thoughts and act on it. About half the dialouge is comprised of those unguarded things most of us are wise enough to keep buried deep, and that's why FRIENDS ultimately works. It allows us to see what would happen if we really lived our lives this way.
The performances are gleefully honest. Ben Stiller is so compulsively selfish, he practically leaves a film on the screen when he's not there. Catherine Keerner and Amy Brennemen have never been better, but then this movie gives them some meat to work with, as opposed to the second fiddle roles they've settled with ("Daylight," anyone?)
Similarly, just as COMPANY featured Aaron Eckhart as the most malicious bastard alive, LaBute cast Jason Patric is the key bastard role, and he almost--almost--out-slimes Eckhart's character from the previous film. Eckhart, teaming with LaBute again here, plays a simp. Puffy around the edges with a dull, confused expression for most of the film, Eckhart emerges as a great character actor.
The problem with the talky, episodic approach and limiting subject matter--sex--LaBute paints himself into an ugly little corner. Yes, we all think about sex. Yes, all relationships ultimately suck. And yes, human nature can be a baffling entity.
Ultimately, he runs out of things to say, even when his actors are saying it so spledidly.
Rating: **** [4 out of 5 stars]
ROMANTICISM is toast. Long live sex. Except blokes are useless in bed, and/or bastards, while birds are bored in bed, and/or gagging for it (with someone else). Welcome to the modern world! Neil LaBute writes dialogue that eats your underwear. Both "In The Company Of Men" - his debut guys-are-shite movie - and "Your Friends And Neighbors" have scripts to strip naked to. His view of the human condition would cause heart attacks at the Care Share Clinic. Anyone with a smidgen of romance about their person had better stay in and watch "Sleepless In Meg Ryan's Linen Cupboard."
There are six characters, two married, one loose and abusing, the other AC/DC. The fellas play squash and talk truth-or-Ruth in the locker room. The weedy academic (Ben Stiller) makes a pass at his buddy's wife (Amy Brenneman). The buddy (Aaron Eckhart) confesses that he can't beat a DIY orgasm, while Dr Psycho Control (Jason Patric), the creep without a conscience, tells a tale of schoolboy rape that would have Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh puking behind the settee. The ladies are locked and blocked. Marital sex has the excitement of yesterday's rice pudding. They need topped up. They go looking.
LaBute thinks the act of love is an oxymoron. If he wasn't so acerbic and witty, you would wash your hands, walk out and become a monk. As it is, you stay and applaud. P.S. Don't take your partner. Whatever happens, you'll have a row.
Writer/ Director Neil LaBute treats his cinema as flat out confrontation--his characters, their words and actions, and even his repressed technique prod, attack, and tell the truth to the audience, often at the same time. In his dramatic jungle, it should only be fair that the audience, as human animals, be given an opportunity to defend themselves. But we've lived in captivity far too long, and as cinematically spoon-fed domesticated creatures, our means of retaliation are limited. As a defense mechanism we must express something, react--or self-destruct.
Audiences are used to laughing at jokes, at slapstick, at the bizarre, at ironic situations; but sometimes we laugh simply because there is nothing else available to our senses; no other means of expression will suffice. Aside from turning to those strangers next to you, asking their pardon and scurrying out to the theater manager in search of a refund, laughter is often the only defense. That laughter abounds throughout LaBute's latest film, but unevenly, randomly, from different people at different times.
Your Friends and Neighbors, and his first, In the Company of Men, create scenes, characters, and whole story lines derived from moments made possible by our active imaginations, or due to our involuntary consciousness, that most films (and most people) choose to (or are expected to) repress. Movie characters are rarely this fully exposed, and that's the most unsettling thing about LaBute's method: as a group of strangers, the audience observes pieces of people's lives that are absolutely private. We don't expect to see them, we may not feel we need to see them, and often we may not want to see them. But in his own words, by presenting this intimacy he's "testing the audience, provoking them, engaging them, in the best possible way." This results in an awkward relationship between viewer and filmmaker, one that is uncomfortable and even offensive. Any number of Armageddon's are out there to assault the senses with the lies of fantasy effects and different worlds, but few are out there to assault you emotionally and morally with the darker truth of other people's lives right here on earth. So when they guy in the corner of the theater, or behind you, or across the aisle lets out a laugh, a giggle, a gasp, you know that something's hit home. Some piece of one of LaBute's complexly human characters has found acknowledgement, comfortable or not.
Films, as the common thinking goes, provide an escape. They allow pieces of time and experience within worlds far from geographical, economic, realistic, or imaginative means. And if the majority of movies exist to uplift us, inspire us, or teach us of the moral goodness within ourselves, why should a few not also give us some of the opposite? Are the two poles not products of the same human beast? Both exist, so why should both not be mined and presented? Why not investigate the spite, narcissism, helplessness, impotence, guilt, and anxiety?
The six characters in Your Friends and Neighbors are not outwardly amoral; they aren't murderers, rapists, or pedophiles. They are all thirty-something career folk, and seem to me not unlike many other thirty-something career folk out there, or anyone else out there for that matter; perhaps they are your friends or neighbors. They aren't extraordinary in any way. They are, however, extraordinary movie characters: they stumble around with words, by being constructed of typical human vice and folly-they are not types, and they talk frankly about everything (who doesn't do so with someone intimate-a spouse, a friend, a lover-the audience just happens to be able to watch and hear it all). One couple is married, one couple is living together, two others are single, and after all of their grass-is-greener relationship maneuvering, they are no better off than they were previous.
As we meet them: Aaron Eckhart is Barry, the only married man, an insecure and (seemingly, to his wife) impotent dud of a man who at one point explains to a friend that while women have given him pleasure, none has ever matched that which he gives himself (yes, he speaks of masturbation). Ben Stiller is Jerry, a seemingly more secure drama teacher who in one class explains to his students, as he acts out a scene of seduction, that beyond the dialogue, beyond the acting, beyond the melodrama, all anyone is really interested in is the 'f---ing.' He is constantly trying to convince somebody of something (as a by-product of attempts to convince himself)-including his live-in girlfriend who, with his incessant exclamations during sex, is never quite convinced of how good it is. Catherine Keener is Terri, said girlfriend. She hates to be talked to (yelled at) during sex. Sex is sex, and conversation (read: attachment) is conversation, and never shall they mix. Amy Brenneman is Mary, Barry's wife, a fragile creature, unsatisfied in every way imaginable-she can get neither her husband nor a would-be lover to get it up, nor can she get either to connect with her emotionally. Jason Patric is Cary, a doctor whose no-holds-barred mix of narcissism, deviance, arrogance and brutal honesty tops any that quickly come to movie memory-Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge, Malkovich in pick one, David Thewlis in Naked. (In one scene inparticular, Patric's Cary approaches Keener's Terri in the bookstore and confronts her with so Nasstaja Kinski is Cheri, the films least expressed character, an artist's assistant (not an artist) who works at a city gallery where she, at various moments throughout the film, meets each and every character. With one, Terri, she has an affair and falls in love. Regardless of the mix-the male/ female and female/ female pairs, the three male friends, the three female acquaintances, Mary and Jerry, Terri and Cary-they prod and taunt, pry and confess, seduce and despise.
They interact in places common: the gym, the lunch table, a bookstore and a grocery store. LaBute seems to enjoy the irony of teaming these typically public settings with such explicitly private discourse, and, again, playing with our expectations. His camera confronts us too, not by its technique or virtuosity of movement, but the calculated decisions that dictate a lack thereof. "I am not in love with the camera," LaBute says "it gets moved when it needs to;" and 'when it needs to' often feels perfect. In one instance, it sits and waits long after a character leaves his frame, underlining the lie and the lure of seduction that brings him back in. In another, after presenting quite intimately and painfully a character's initial verbal step toward adultery (how do you ask that question of someone else), it tracks off to another room to reveal the unknowing partners, in wide-shot, preparing desert, giggling and chitchatting.
When LaBute combines his unique visual and writing styles, and turns the squirm-in-your-seat volume up to 10, he creates his own unique scene type. A good 'LaBute scene' offers a completely stripped down and bitter emotional antagonism driven home by his most aggressively power hungry character. It's one with no glad-handing or hi-how-are-IOUs, just character driven audacity-Your Friends and Neighbors has two that stand out. In the most notable, the three male friends sit in sauna, wrapped in towels-a real talk-shop setting-demanding each tell of his of best-ever sexual experience. After Barry (Eckhart) decides his is his wife (a painful lie of an admission-perhaps most painful that it's considered an admission). Cary (Patric), part in reaction to Barry's mushy posture, begins to detail his high school raping of a male gym-mate. Disturbing in itself, the confession is made more-so by its existential, epic nature, by the fact that Cary convinced himself that 'Timmy' actually enjoyed it (who could deny his prowess?) and by LaBute's camera, which in its most drastic (if subtle) move of the film, closes in from a wide three shot to a close-up of Cary in one nearly undetectable, steady zoom (the move forces the audience to not only concentrate on the horrid admission, but also become uncomfortably intimate with it). The scene tops In the Company of Men's literal 'show me your balls' gasp-inducer, and, as did it's predecessor, it exists as an example of how much of his character's spite and bile LaBute is willing to reveal. It really feels as if that is what he is doing with Your Friends and Neighbors--putting on screen, in various degrees, pieces of the lives of people that already exist-he just offers more than we have grown to expect.
It is interesting to know that Neil LaBute is not some fringe-dwelling writer, wrapped up in the sordid mess of borderline morality that engulfs most of his characters. He is a suburban-dwelling family man, and while he may not have experienced characters like his first hand, he certainly holds a severe understanding of, and perspective on, human behavior along with a calculated willingness to expose it.
Someone asked me, upon hearing my description of the film's 'plot,' "so then, was it a black comedy?" as if anything so bleak and void of goodness simply had to provide some kind of redeeming satirical release. My simple response was some thing like "oh, yes, a dark, dark, dark comedy." I suppose if I wanted to classify LaBute's film, I might in fact start there; but labeling Your Friends and Neighbors in such a manner cuts past something much more interesting: his is a film that doesn't aspire to satirize and thus, by definition, begin with the end understood. This one begins from inside the human brain, with human behavior as its only premise, and with an infinite amount of conscious and unconscious fuel, arrives at a destination, while not too far from where it started, having traveled a worthwhile hell of a long way.