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The Boston Phoenix Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Keeping Company with Neil LaBute

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 31, 1998:  In this time of diminished expectations, it's nice that Neil LaBute can still shock us with bad behavior. Just the premise of his first film, The Company of Men, was enough to distress more sensitive viewers: two men, embittered friends, conspire to seduce and demolish a damaged woman. Some decried the movie as misogynist; others recoiled from its dead-on depiction of human malice. Most were shocked to find how easily they could laugh at its sour little abominations.

LaBute's new Your Friends & Neighbors is, for better and worse, more of the same. Expanding the cast of usual suspects from Company's scalene triangle to three pairs of unhappy men and women, LaBute sets in motion a prickly, demoralizing La ronde of sexual abusiveness -- both of self and of others. We learn nothing new about the nature of self-loathing or mean-spirited manipulation. But with its shrewd, uncompromising performances and LaBute's brutally insightful screenplay, Your Friends & Neighbors makes the obvious freshly depressing and hilarious.

Jason Patric as Cary (none of the rhyming character names is actually uttered in the film -- which makes the idea seem just that much more schematic) sets the tone before the opening credits uncoil. His muscle-rippling torso gleaming with sweat as he engages in seeming loveplay, he spits out the kind of rough sweet talk that vainglorious studs might think is music to a woman's ears. Like many of the film's best (and sometimes most dubious) scenes, this one ends with a deflating comic twist, revealing all of Cary's crass egotism and fraudulence.

Of course, when it comes to fraudulence, Cary at least is honest about it. Not so Ben Stiller's smarmy theater professor Jerry, who's first seen in a class demonstration of a Restoration drama that is also a thinly veiled seduction of one of his students. Beneath all the lace and powdered wigs, he winkingly pontificates, it's all about one thing: fucking.

For LaBute, the opposite seems the case. His characters' preoccupation with sex conceals souls that are the flimsiest of fetishes. Even the simplest and least invidious of the sextet operate from motives that are banal, bankrupt, or deluded. Barry (Aaron Eckhart, who played the vicious Jason Patric counterpart in Company), pudgy and jovial and a bit dimwitted, insists that he's happily married to Mary (Amy Brenneman) but confesses early on to a co-worker that the best sex he has is with himself. "She's great, and all," he says about his wife, "but she's just not . . . me."

Needless to say, Mary's not that thrilled with Barry's bedroom performance either. And Jerry, frustrated by his flinty girlfriend Terri ("Can you just shut the fuck up?" she responds to his bedroom play-by-play -- "This isn't a travelogue"), plots to seduce the wife of his "best friend." Meanwhile, Terri takes a shine to "artist's assistant" Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), and Cary, unburdened by deviousness or superego, fills out the background with heinous one-night stands.

Patric, of course, gets all the jawdropping moments. He, Stiller, and Eckhart are an unlikely trio, but he appeals to his friends' watered-down brutishness by relating tales of gang rape and other atrocities. His deeds, however, seem bright spots compared to his pals' ineffectual perversity.

As for the women, Kinski's Cheri and Catherine Keener's Terri fare little better than in Company, being largely needy dupes. And after a while the inevitable, misanthropic punch line to every set-up palls, and repeated tag lines like "Is it me?" and "Is it a single piece or part of a collection?" get a little tired. Put together in a series of Jim Jarmusch-like blackout episodes delineated with all the flair of illustrations in a medical textbook, Your Friends & Neighbors at times comes off as a dyspeptic cartoon -- or a remake of a cartoonist's film. Mike Nichols did this all nearly three decades ago in his adaptation of Jules Pfeiffer's Carnal Knowledge, and to judge from LaBute's version, human nastiness hasn't changed much, it's only gotten more glib. LaBute has gotten more glib as well. It's time he moved on to humors other than bile.

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