What's Love Got to Do With It?

As the lights came up after a screening of the new Neil LaBute movie Your Friends & Neighbors, a colleague next to me growled disapprovingly, "That was a nasty movie." For LaBute -- whose divisive debut film In the Company of Men (1997) is probably the worst date movie ever made -- this comment would no doubt come as the highest praise. He's the kind of writer-director who doesn't think he's giving us a good time unless he's making us squirm. He has a horror filmmaker's mindset, except LaBute doesn't resort to bloodletting; he conveys his horror with words. He wants to make our skin crawl by demonstrating how morally depraved people can be.

But the funny thing about this prince of darkness is that he's really a softy. Beneath all his men-and-women-behaving-badly scenarios beats the bleeding heart of an innocent who can't bear the bad news. He's aghast at the ugliness of the species, which, given how much ugliness is out there in plain view, makes him a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. Despite all his hoo-hah, there's something ho-hum about LaBute's amazement at what people are capable of doing to each other. I mean, what else is new? In Your Friends & Neighbors he's having a high old time giving himself the creeps. For the rest of us it's all kind of ... well ... nasty.

LaBute is fond of saying that the people in his movies are representative only of themselves, that no larger sociological implications should be inferred. But clearly this is a coy ploy. In the Company of Men was about two corporate players who set out to woo a deaf-mute employee in order to dump her unceremoniously as vengeance against all women. In Your Friends, LaBute is once again scourging upscale urbanites. There's something unseemly about the way he goes after this crowd. He may be throwing rabbit punches, but behind them is an Old Testament wrath, and that wrath seems way out of proportion to the target.

Jerry (Ben Stiller), for example, is a nerdy college drama professor who is miserably cohabitating with Terri (Catherine Keener), a shrew who makes her living writing ad copy for products such as tampons. We are first introduced to this couple in the throes of passion. His passion, at any rate. Terri can't stand his play-by-play vocalizing and, in midhump, tells him so. (She's right. He does talk too much.) Terri just wants to get down. Or maybe she doesn't even want that. "It's not a time for sharing," she notes. Thanks for sharing.

Then there's a second fun couple, Mary (Amy Brenneman), a journalist, and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), who works in some unspecified white-collar managerial job. We also first see them in bed. (LaBute is big on these plot parallelisms, as if to demonstrate that human behavior is as quantifiable as a theorem.) Barry is depicted as a big lug in the bedroom; Mary, wordless and unsatisfied, is a big mope. He ends up making love with his favorite partner, his hand.

Cary (Jason Patric), a bachelor and also -- God help us -- an obstetrician, is first introduced to us as he tape-records his own sex talk while doing situps in his sleek apartment. He's rehearsing his Lothario spiel for his bedmates, but the real object of his lust is clearly himself. He's as autoerotic as Barry, a stud whinnying in his own stable.

LaBute intersects the lives of these people in a flat, diagrammatic style that is part Carnal Knowledge, part David Mamet, part Geometry 101. Barry and Cary are buddies -- at least in the LaBute manner, which means they're comfortable enough around each other to share dirty confidences. Jerry is friends with them too, but he doesn't trust Cary, and he initiates a tryst with Mary. Needless to say, the tryst fizzles; Jerry pouts and apologizes, and Mary goes into her mope. But Terri gets wind of the goings-on and, furiously jealous, initiates with considerably more success her own affair with Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), an art gallery assistant.

Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary, Jerry -- all these rhyming names. LaBute wants to lump them all together in order to mow them down. Actually, these names appear only in the credits. In the movie no one is addressed by name, in furtherance of that anonymous, archetypal effect. Unidentified, these people could be anybody, even you. The city in which the movie takes place is also unidentified, no doubt for the same reasons. In general LaBute does his best to strip his characters and their environment of any specifying traits. No one has any kids, parents, or family that we can see; no other friends or neighbors intrude. Their jobs are, at best, sketchy. In any given scene LaBute never allows more than three or four players to be seen or heard, and he films the monologues and dialogues very close-in -- to achieve that clinical, depersonalized effect. But it's no great feat to depersonalize people if you eliminate most of what makes them human. LaBute stacks the deck: He wants to demonstrate how maggoty everybody is, and he does so by showing us only characters with sex on the brain.

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