Is it me? Are his words somehow connected to my vagina? Am I being accused of speaking? The spouses and lovers of Your Friends & Neighbors ask each other such questions in this latest battle of the sexes by writer-director Neil LaBute--a film in which, according to the press kit, "words are the ultimate weapons." But at the moment, I'm asking these questions myself, and wondering why, out of a roomful of junket-going journalists packed around a coffee table in a suite at the Four Seasons, this deceptively innocuous-looking filmmaker seems to have trained his weapons on li'l ol' me.
I should explain. A few moments before the Oxford-clad creator of In the Company of Men, um, nailed me, I had called him on his language, observing that he seems to favor violent terms like "smacking" and "bashing" to describe the effect of his films. "Is that what you were thinking of doing to your audience?" I inquire. LaBute demurs. "I don't think it was as calculated as that," he says, "but [as a filmmaker] you want to build to climaxes. It wasn't like, 'We're really gonna let 'em have it, so let's use a 2-by-4,' but you do want some sense of impact." When the conversation turns to Jason Patric's soon-to-be-notorious steamroom monologue detailing a certain sexual conquest, LaBute explains that they filmed the four-minute scene in one continuous shot so as to--yup--"whack you with it." With that, LaBute turns directly to me and says, "That was for you."
Ouch. Considering LaBute's rap sheet as the instigator of last year's assaultive In the Company of Men, his preferred method of making contact with me shouldn't have been surprising. Ever since he began writing plays as an undergrad at Brigham Young University, LaBute, 35, has aimed to hit the spectator where she lives, and Your Friends & Neighbors, an abrasive study of urban predators and their prey, is no exception.
"Originally, I wanted to call it Lepers, but everybody said that title might not reel 'em in from the Calendar section," he remembers. "So I said, 'All right, how about Dead Lepers?'" The furor over his first feature seems to have spurred this unrepentant auteur to new heights. "If it takes being provocative to get a sense of the audience going beyond just sitting there and watching, then it's worth doing," he says.
In that spirit, Your Friends & Neighbors takes up where Men left off--that is, in bed. While "Get to work" is how Men's sexually dominating Chad commanded his girlfriend, Friends opens (and closes) with a rigorous montage of bedroom couplings: Patric's mindf--- machine humping the sheets and practicing come-ons in a sexual dry run; a plump softie (Aaron Eckhart) apologizing to his dissatisfied wife (Amy Brenneman) for his limp performance; and an uncharmed woman (Catherine Keener) objecting to the sex-talk of her mouthy beau (Ben Stiller). The film mixes and matches these five lost souls (plus Nastassja Kinski's comely artist's assistant) as they ruthlessly pursue sexual satisfaction or human connection. But despite such intimate subject matter, LaBute says he sought a "cold and archetypal" effect that would "force the audience to look at the mirror."
And what about the director's sexual (self-) image? Alas, the probing inquiries of a perky TV reporter provoke only playful deflection from LaBute--and he's scarcely more personal in the press kit: "We humans are a fairly barbarous bunch, and I don't think we've changed much over the millennia." Likewise, LaBute defers to Darwin to explain his directorial M.O.: "I sit back and watch as if I were looking at a nature show. In nature documentaries, when the baby seals are killed, the camera doesn't pull back. The filmmaker shows it. That's how I tend to think of my films: This is the way life is."
You can be sure you won't find men and women interacting as friends in Your Friends & Neighbors, since sexual conflict is the sole dynamic between them. But then again, sexual gamesmanship defines all the relationships here, and the women's inability to communicate clearly rivals their male neighbors'. Indeed, Keener's character proves just as cold in a lesbian relationship as she'd been in a straight one. This leads me to suspect that LaBute might agree with novelist Dorothy Sayers, who prefers to think of men or women not as "the opposite sex" but "the neighboring sex." Today, though, LaBute suggests Patric's sadist as a "force of nature." And when Stiller stops by our table to put his two cents in, he describes the film as "an anthropological study of how humans interact and have always interacted."
Still, LaBute acknowledges that Your Friends & Neighbors does reflect the times. "The last 30 years have seen a cycle of difficulty," he says. "The white male had a healthy run for a long time, and that has been changing." So while critics have hailed the director's French New Wave idol Eric Rohmer (Chloe in the Afternoon) as a poet of bourgeois repression, LaBute laughingly offers himself as "the poet of the pathetic white man." But the question remains whether he's satirizing white men's "survival" strategies or lamenting their alleged downfall. In either case, he dissects man-to-man dynamics with scalpel-like humor, exposing the simultaneously erotic and competitive rituals of manhood as practiced in the locker room and the barroom.
If LaBute's latest work continues to offer insight into the company of men, Your Friends & Neighbors also finds him stretching to reach womenfolk--but without fully grasping the female world of love and ritual, which doesn't surprise Catherine Keener. "You write what you know," she observes. "As compassionate as Neil is, he's a man. Can you think of men who write from a woman's perspective?" Still, Keener does believe LaBute offers just what the feminist doctor ordered: a more realistic antidote to Hollywood love stories. "Why is it that so many movies offer this kind of lovable misogyny?" she asks. "Instead, Neil addresses [misogyny] dead-on, without any camouflage." Meanwhile, Eckhart, who earned the animosity of many a filmgoer as the monster of Men, suggests a different moral to the story: "Maybe when you're having sex from behind, you'll think twice."
LaBute directs viewers into yet another position: "You must see something of yourself in these people." As for me, I conclude that my own encounter with the filmmaker bears some resemblance to Your Friends & Neighbors' harrowing bookstore scene, wherein Patric's character breaks down a woman's sharp-tongued defenses with harsh language. In other words, while LaBute's stinging "That was for you" might barely pass for a wink instead of a whack, it does put me in my place: From then on, I defer to the man in charge by keeping the challenging questions to myself.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Vecinos más que amigos...
En su Segundo largo el promisorio Neil LaBute arremete contra las companies cotidianas con tanto humor negro e ironía como lo había hecho con el mundo de las corporaciones en In the Company of Men. Las relaciones entre las parejas, las disfuncionalidades, las peleas, y lo que sucede todos los días! Es el material de esta nueva comedia.
Con muchos diálogos, fluidos e hiperactivos y logradas actuaciones el film se sostiene con soltura mientras van pasando las situaciones que si bien no profundizan, dejan entrever la malicia del director y su ojo entrenado para mostrar situaciones...
Jasón Patric ( "Máxima velocidad 2") es Cary un aficionado al sexo, egoista y manipulador. Cary tiene dos amigos, Ben Stiller, Jerry ("Loco por Mary" y Aaron Eckhart, Barry, ambos envueltos en conflictivas relaciones. Jerry, es un professor universitario que se pelea con su novia Terri (Catherine Keener), por diferencias en como hacerlo...Y Barry directamente no puede hacerlo con su esposa Amy Brenneman, Mary. Y por otro lado está Cheri, la Kinski, una artista algo compulsiva...Es decir, nadie está sano...
Apadrinado por su mentor David Mamet, LaBute consigue un film directo y divertido, los diálogos son creibles y la cámara sigue con apasionamiento pero sin exceso de protagonismo la historia. Cinismo, amor, amistad, y sexo son los temas preferidos para las filosas líneas que el director de 35 años pone en boca de sus actores.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Neil LaBute entered the film world with two scripts he had written and enough money to make one. The smaller number of locations and characters tipped the scales toward "In the Company of Men."
Screened at the 1997 Sundance Festival, "In the Company of Men" grabbed industry attention by exploring the depths of mental cruelty practiced by two corporate players.
The good news is that LaBute's other script is even better. "Your Friends & Neighbors" utilizes the same cynicism and candor in observing the dishonesty among six acquaintances entwined in a complex relationship.
That complexity revolves around sex. Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (LaBute pal and "In the Company" star Aaron Eckhart) are married but mutually unfulfilled.
Terri (Catherine Keener) and Jerry (Ben Stiller) are mismatched roommates who seek pleasure elsewhere: Jerry from a host of nubile undergrads in his theater seminar, Terri from impressionable artist's assistant Cheri (Nastassja Kinski). By himself is Cary (Jason Patric), a narcissistic lady's man with a nasty disposition.
Detailing their comings and goings would reveal too much about LaBute's raw, acerbic comedy of morals. His screenplay dances giddily between the lighter and darker sides of sex, in places where Tina Turner would see that love's got nothin' to do with it.
On one front, Kinski's first meetings with four principals are staged to comic precision at the gallery where she works. On another, a mocking lockerroom taunt spurs Patric's eerie revelation and serves as grim catalyst for the film's stunning climax.
The acting is extraordinary, particularly by Brenneman, quietly powerful in an underwritten role, and the sometimes annoying Stiller, priceless here as the always annoying Lothario. Rightly or wrongly, "Your Friends & Neighbors" will have you thinking twice before the next chat with your neighbors and friends.
Sex & Nudity: 9 out of 10 [10 being the highest level of this content]
Violence & Gore: 3 out of 10
Profanity: 10 out of 10
MPAA Rating: R
A circle of sexually dissatisfied friends and lovers betray each other in a quest to find someone better. Starring Ben Stiller, Jason Patric, Nastassja Kinski, Aaron Eckhart, Amy Brenneman and Catherine Keener.
SEX/NUDITY 9 - Lots of sexual innuendo (including references to oral sex, masturbation and homosexual acts) -- sex is discussed in almost every scene. Kissing, often passionately; in a few scenes, two woman kiss each other. A man graphically describes how he and his friends anally raped a boy in high school. In a few scenes, we see a shirtless man and a woman in a slip moving rhythmically in bed. In several post-coital scenes, we see a shirtless man and a scantily clad woman in bed. Twice, we see two scantily clad women in bed together, presumably after they've had sexual contact. In a stage play, a man pushes a woman onto a bed, flips her skirt over her head and bumps his crotch into her buttocks. In two scenes, it's implied that a man masturbates (we see a man's hand moving rhythmically underneath a sheet covering his lower body). We see a sweaty man moving rhythmically and talking as if he were having intercourse; we later learn he's alone and audio-taping himself (he listens to the tape later in the movie). We see two men's bare chests as they're showering, several men sitting in a sauna with towels draped across their laps, and a man in his underwear. A woman's bra is visible underneath her unbuttoned shirt. We see the side of a nude woman sitting in a chair (her arm covers part of her breast) and a brief glimpse of full frontal female nudity. We see part of a woman's bare buttocks (a man playfully slaps them) and part of a woman's bare breast as man fondles it.
VIOLENCE/GORE 3 - A man graphically describes how he and his friends anally raped a boy in high school. A man repeatedly pounds on a door and yells at a woman cowering behind it. A man verbally threatens a woman. Keys are thrown at a man's head. A man punts a plastic fetus.
PROFANITY 10 - About 75 F-words, lots of anatomical and scatological references and several mild obscenities and insults. [profanity glossary]
DISCUSSION TOPICS - Infidelity, betrayal, misogyny, sexual relationships, sexual dissatisfaction, impotence, lesbianism.
MESSAGE - We all have sexual issues and problems that make it difficult to maintain meaningful, loving relationships.
Barry (AARON ECKHART) and his wife, Mary (AMY BRENNEMAN), have been married for years, but likewise have problems in bed. Having become nearly incompatible, he's turned to self- gratification to fulfill his needs. Both men share their common problems between themselves and with a third friend, Cary (JASON PATRIC), an egomaniacal misogynist who often uses sex as a retaliatory weapon.
Things become complicated when at the end of a double date, Jerry confronts Mary with his feelings for her. Soon, they begin to sneak off for clandestine meetings, but at the same time, Terri begins seeing Cheri (NASTASSJA KINSKI), an art assistant, and they have an affair. As these two developments unfold, their repercussions begin to affect all six people involved.
Much like that film, his sophomore outing, "Your Friends And Neighbors," explores the sexual side of such relationships and includes great writing and several new, but still unsavory characters. Unlike his first effort, however, this one features a weaker plot that isn't intriguing enough to fully compensate for the meanspirited behavior. Perhaps LaBute should have called this one "Your Enemies and Other Despicable People Who Live Nearby."
In all fairness, the film's sextet cast is filled with clearly distinctive characters whose behavior is intriguing, but not always entertaining to watch. Interestingly, they're never identified by name at any point in the movie (and only in the press kit), assumedly a point LaBute's making with his film being about common, everyday men and women.
Clearly the most interesting character is Jason Patric's volatile misogynist. While Patric ("Speed 2," "Rush") has played edgy parts before, this is a creation as equally disturbing as any seen on the screen in years (or at least since LaBute's last film). Cary is one of those despicable characters whose arrogance and meanspirited nature is so disturbing that you'll easily come to hate him, but will find that you can't keep your eyes from him as he easily commands every scene in which he appears.
Doing a polar opposite is Aaron Eckhart who played a character similar to Patric's in "In The Company Of Men." Without prior knowledge, one would never know that this is the same actor, especially since his physical appearance (no longer lean and trim, different hair color, etc...) and demeanor are so completely different. Perhaps he's hiding from the legions of women who came to hate him for his earlier, caustic role.
Heir apparent to the bumbling and neurotic romantic characters "created" (and seemingly vacated) by Woody Allen, Ben Stiller ("There's Something About Mary," "Flirting With Disaster") is as good as ever. While inhabiting a more modern day, but less "geeky" version of the character type Allen popularized throughout his career, Stiller's performance is quite funny.
Concerning the fairer gender, the characters certainly aren't as developed as their male counterparts. While Nastassja Kinski ("One Night Stand," "Father's Day") is decent and Catherine Keener ("Out Of Sight," "The Real Blonde") is appropriately bitchy as a woman with a neurotic obsession about talking during sex, Amy Brenneman ("Heat," "Daylight") clearly inhabits the strongest female character this film has to offer.
I've always liked Brenneman's work -- all the way back to her appearances on the first season of TV's "N.Y.P.D. Blue" -- and believe her to be one of the more emotive character actresses working today. Few can so easily convey inner feelings with a simple look, but she's got that knack and it helps her here as she delivers yet another fine performance.
Despite the diverse and interesting -- if not always likeable -- characters, the film suffers from a weak and near nonexistent plot. While "In The Company Of Men" has similarly based characters, its plot was interesting. One never knew how it would turn out and whether either of the guys would fall for the woman they were planning to emotionally destroy. Here, the plot mainly concerns the repercussions of what will happen should Jerry have a fling with his best friend's wife.
While that sounds intriguing enough to carry the film, in reality most of the time is spent having the characters sitting around discussing their relationships and sexual experiences. Although some of them are interesting -- including an extremely disturbing one told by Cary about a high school "encounter" years earlier -- they begin to take on the feeling that you've suddenly sat down in a group therapy session.
That, or an extended and less humorous episode of Seinfeld" where a whole lot of hot air is expelled for nothing in particular by the story's end. While that might not bother you if you like dialogue laden films, I personally prefer a bit of plot with my talk.
Even so, the film is usually mesmerizing to watch -- sort of like spying on people sitting around and revealing their secrets -- and offers an interesting exploration of today's sexual and nonsexual relationships. Featuring some vividly constructed characters -- including yet another strong misogynist villain who could play tag team with LaBute's other similar creations -- the film is decent, but not great.
For me, I would have found the film more entertaining had more of a plot existed to justify the occasionally interesting, but dialogue heavy standalone scenes. Thus, we give "Your Friends And Neighbors" -- another film that will likely polarize audiences into either loving or hating it -- a 6 out of 10.