by Rob Gonsalves
The characters in Neil LaBute's universe aren't quite like us -- they're abstract -- yet in some ways they're more like us than we like to admit.LaBute doesn't stylize his characters so much that we can stand at a comfortable distance from them, and that bothered a lot of people who saw his debut, In the Company of Men. Those people called LaBute's vision cold and hollow, as if they experienced his work as a personal slap at them. That says more about the critic than about the work.
"More electrifying LaBute nastiness."
LaBute's second film, Your Friends & Neighbors, won't win him any converts (the way Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction managed to charm some viewers who'd hated Reservoir Dogs), but for those who appreciated Company, it's a keeper. As always, LaBute points his microscope at a microcosm of sexual politics, except here he has twice the number of people -- three men, three women -- and many more opportunities for those painfully funny (or just painful) LaBute moments in which characters are explicitly candid without really saying anything. And in LaBute's world it hardly matters if nobody really says anything, because nobody really listens, either.
In an unnamed Anycity (the film has no exterior shots), two couples -- the married Barry and Mary (Aaron Eckhart and Amy Brenneman), the cohabitating Jerry and Terri (Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener) -- fumble in their respective beds. The women grit their teeth and endure the strained lovemaking of their insecure men, who see sex as a way of measuring up. "Is it me?" the men keep asking. "Yes, it's you" seems the proper answer, though LaBute only has one woman say that in a nonsexual context. Rounding out this sextet (or bad-sextet) are Cheri (Natassja Kinski), a friendly lesbian, and Cary (Jason Patric), an unfriendly womanizer.
LaBute doesn't tell stories, exactly; he sets up his people and lets them knock each other down, and Your Friends & Neighbors has a looser structure than the rigorous In the Company of Men, which marched to its grim conclusion like a man to the gallows. Those who hissed Aaron Eckhart's Chad in Company will be amused to see him here, pudgy and with an ugly mustache, playing someone closer to Chad's stooge Howard. Any film in which Eckhart plays the most sympathetic character is full of surprises, not the least of which is Jason Patric, shaking himself awake to give a rancid, scowling performance -- a mesmerizing portrait of misogyny that makes Chad look like Alan Alda. The actors are fine across the board, but the stand-out is Catherine Keener, whose Terri is snappish and blunt but also the movie's voice of reason, forever pleading for silence -- an end to the constant banal babble.
LaBute likes symbolic names. In Company he had Chad the cad, Howard the coward, and Christine the pristine; here everyone has rhyming names. These people have nothing in common, and no poetry in their lives, besides their names. Yet they sleep with each other, or hang out together, out of convenience. LaBute doesn't tell us how any of them met; they stand for the busy drones in any city who latch onto people just to be "social." The Ben Stiller character, a drama professor, keeps talking about "fate"; that's what people say to justify bad relationships.We're just hollow bodies, LaBute is saying, going through the motions of love and friendship to avoid being alone -- which produces a more piercing loneliness: the awareness that your friends and neighbors, and even lovers, don't really know you and never really will.
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originally posted: 01/18/07 14:30:57