With "Your Friends And Neighbors" Neil LaBute Continues His Twisted Look At Human Nature.
By Stacey Richter
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 fucking, 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 fuck 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.
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