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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. LaBute has a horror filmmaker's mindset, except he 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 extracted. 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 & Neighbors, 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 cohabiting 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 sit-ups 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 -- to achieve 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 reason. 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, sketched in. 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.

There are bound to be people who will argue that the film makes us uncomfortable because it exposes the beastliness beneath our civilized, middle-class veneer. That the film is nasty because it's true. That our lives really are all about sex. That we're more scuzzily one-dimensional than we'd like to admit.

What I think this argument misses is the fact that people are only one-dimensional until you get inside their heads. For a supposedly serious filmmaker, LaBute has an awfully narrow concept of human nature. That's why the people in Your Friends & Neighbors remain "types." They don't learn from experience and they don't change. We don't even see what might once have attracted them to each other. They're just specimens in LaBute's insectary.

Basically what he's saying is this: We're all crumbums and dupes. Men are unworthy of women, who are not worth it anyway. This is the way it's always been; human nature doesn't change. The rituals LaBute exposes are, in his view, the same male-female screw sessions that dramatists have been delineating since the Greeks. Only the names -- or in this case the no-names -- have changed.

By setting his movie in an upscale milieu, LaBute is implicitly condemning the middle class for having the effrontery to seek its pleasures. This is a very old game. The counterculture used to play it in the '60s; now the reactionaries have stepped up to the plate. It's not just that these friends and neighbors are scum; they're bourgeoise scum. What could be worse? LaBute doesn't want to let any joy into the picture; if he did, it might expose how rigged and shallow his cynicism is. A fun couple in bed would explode his depresso thesis. No one in Your Friends and Neighbors gets any pleasure from anything. The closest approximation is when the heterosexual Cary delivers a rapt three-minute monologue to his "friends" about the intense personal fulfillment he received sodomizing a student who snitched on him in high school.

It's significant that Cary, despite all his tape-recorded, warm-up sex talk, is never shown actually sleeping with anyone. What we see instead are pre- or postcoital sessions with Cary rasping at his bedmates, who are usually off-camera. For him the rasp is the real sex. Humiliating others -- his male friends as well as his women -- turns him on. Cary is the most compelling character in the movie because at least he doesn't make any bones about who he is. He may get dangerously high inhaling the fumes of his own hellfire, but his radar is in fine working order: Without prompting he catches the vibrations of discontent in his friends' bedrooms. Jason Patric, who also co-produced this film, has been a bland brooder in his other movies. Here his malevolence is an extension of his lethal handsomeness and square-cut jaw. When Cary moves in on Terri in a bookstore and is rebuffed, he glides back into her with such cool ferocity that it's like watching a shark attack. He's a predator.

LaBute, ironically, comes along at a time when romantic love is once again being sentimentalized on screen. Hollywood in the feminist era never really figured out what to do with guys and gals; the solution, more often than not, was to jettison women to the fringes altogether. They became ornamental adjuncts in the male action-fantasy universe.

In the shimmer of postfeminist Hollywood, men and women are once again starting to act googly-eyed around each other. You can see this in a lot of the big-studio romances, ranging from Titanic and The Mask of Zorro to even a gross-out romp like There's Something About Mary. But you also see it in the acclaimed smaller stuff, such as Sliding Doors or the upcoming Next Stop Wonderland. The low-budget independent sector is playing the same gaga game as the big leagues. We're being taken back to the halcyon days of Some Day My Prince (or Princess) Will Come.

With this in mind, it's easy to overvalue LaBute's funk. He comes on like a spoiler, and, with his clinician's camera and killer dialogue, he certainly holds you. But he's not really going against the romantic sentimentality of the day; rather, he's just demonstrating how awful life is without it. In a way he's perhaps even more of a traditionalist than the Hollywood treaclemeisters. It's possible they are just dispensing their fluff as a commercial expediency, but LaBute seems genuinely horrified by the prospect of sex without love. That's why he flays his characters so mercilessly. He wants these bourgeoise elites to pay for their sins. The question I have is: Who appointed this guy judge, jury, and executioner?

Your Friends & Neighbors.
Directed and written by Neil LaBute. Starring Ben Stiller, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric, and Nastassja Kinski.

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Peter Rainer

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