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Your Friends and Neighbors

movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell

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When Neil LaBute’s neighbors discuss the nature of goodness, they wonder what it’s good for. The 35-year old director who debuted with last year’s corrosive In the Company of Men once again waves the red flag in the war between the sexes. Man’s inhumanity to women seemed the snaky undercurrent of his earlier picture. Rather, his anti-romantic sparring matches, written in the trim, acerbic manner of his mentor, David Mamet, express a more universal hostility—basic human unkindness.

In Your Friends and Neighbors, the cast has doubled to six inconsolable couples. Until the credits roll, they have no names. Not much is known about their personal backgrounds, given their professional status. They’re supposed to represent society at its shallowest, lending a behind-closed-doors peek at our own "friends and neighbors." LaBute consciously excludes the sort of biographical information that he badly needs in order to garner sympathy. Instead, these self-obsessed characters come across as flat and hyper-stylized. We learn more about their pores through probing, unflattering close-ups. These self-obsessed yuppies seem the physical embodiment of their chic, showroom apartments (set in an undisclosed Everycity). Nobody speaks with their fractured pauses and pop-cultural clichés…unless, of course, they’re spotlit on a stage. Coming from a thespian background (earning his master’s in drama at NYU and studying at the Royal Court Theatre in London), LaBute must unlearn rules that conflict with filmmaking. He’s got to think with his camera. Most of his material takes place indoors. The settings resemble theatre sets because the characters hardly move. Shot in wide-angle, waist-level, the actors sit (and so does the scene). There’s nothing physical for them to focus on. Men and women woo in a parade of swanky coffee houses, secondhand book stores and avant-garde galleries, gabbing about their favorite subject: themselves. Each scene ends with a punctuation note, a particularly scathing bon mot. The curtain thuds. This predictable rhythm resumes. It brings to mind French farces (Stiller’s character, a theatre prof, dons a dust-encrusted wig, spoofing the reference.) Of course, Restoration writers couldn’t pace their plots without keeping time. When a candle winked out, the scene climaxed.

Company worked well despite a heavy dependence on theatrical techniques. His verbal feuds had such ferocity, they demanded attention. Inevitably, his sophomore effort (written before the first film) fails because it lacks the other’s shock value (and wit). In that case, there was a story to tell, a "modern immorality" tale that made us think. This time, LaBute’s more interested in entertaining himself. He’s lost the point of all this carnal knowledge. Now it seems like macho locker room one-up-manship. While Aaron Eckhart’s cruel Lothorio represented an all-too familiar, urban breed of monster, this movie’s miscreant (played by co-producer Jason Patric) tries too hard to intimidate. He’s a cartoonish baddie who blows up when a ladyfriend bleeds on his 300-thread sheets. He practices his pillow talk while masturbating into a tape-recorder. His best bedding was a homosexual gang-rape in high-school. LaBute makes him a gyno, much too facile as metaphor, tossing around a plastic anatomical baby like a football.

Ben Stiller, bespectacled and sporting a fungus-like goatee threaded with gray, talks too much during the deed, so his girlfriend dumps him and switches sexual orientation. Catherine Keener, a scheming ad writer who scribes copy for tampon boxes, plays like the boys and pays for it in bed. Natassja Kinski, her conquest, is a passive-aggressive arm-charm, filtering passes from everyone. Eckhardt goes against type, packing on extra bloat as the spineless husband who prefers self-love to his seductive wife, Amy Brenneman. In Company, the villain was clear. For this sextet, redemption is unlikely. As exemplified by the final exchange in flagrante delicto, there’s more than a single monster on the loose. The first is easy to recognize. The other dons a gentler disguise. Which is worse? The one who confesses his crimes or those who try to conceal them?

The cast is well-chosen, the script ambitious but flawed. LaBute’s too brainy for such a sub-bourgeoisie preoccupation with gossipy dialogue, riddled with cultural allusion. The titles rise over Alex Katz paintings. Is this what the characters see when they admire an invisible work in the gallery? Or is it us, the audience, whom they address? A Metallica score blares in the background, sawed on cellos. It’s as if the director is saying, don’t confuse my work for art with a capital A. Yet it still prides itself on its own social significance. "Are you good?" someone asks Patric. He considers the question. "Good for what?" he says. Truth isn’t beauty. That’s all we need to know.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]


Crissa-Jean Chappell works for the Sun Post in South Beach (Miami), Florida.


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