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FW Weekly Neil LaBute's Second Effort Proves Bleak and Harsh

By Joe Leydon

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Writer-director Neil LaBute has a bigger budget and a slightly larger cast for his second feature, Your Friends and Neighbors, but that doesn't mean he has blunted his edgy misanthropy while moving up the moviemaking food chain. In fact, his new drama is in many ways an even nastier piece of work. In the Company of Men, LaBute's attention-grabbing debut effort, focused on the cruel conniving of two businessmen who manipulated an innocent bystander - a deaf temp worker - to "avenge" themselves for every indignity they ever suffered in professional or romantic pursuits. This time, LaBute cynically suggests that there are no innocent bystanders.

Jason Patric, one of the film's two producers, gives a mesmerizing and totally fearless performance as the worst among equals. He plays a cold-blooded gynecologist who at one point relieves his boredom by drop-kicking an anatomical baby model. In the opening scene, his character rehearses for sexual conquests by tape-recording words of encouragement to an imaginary lover. His narcissism is chilling, yet also darkly comical. After a while, however, it becomes obvious that the other people in his orbit - who, like him, are never identified by name - are scarcely less self-absorbed.

Ben Stiller is a college professor who likes to talk during sex, much to the outspoken annoyance of his partner (Catherine Keener). He makes a pass at the vaguely discontented wife (Amy Brenneman) of a close friend (Aaron Eckhart), but fails to rise to the occasion during an illicit rendezvous. Meanwhile, Keener drifts into an affair with a beautiful art-gallery employee (Nastassja Kinski). Not surprisingly, nothing good comes from any of this.

Your Friends and Neighbors is structured as a neo-Restoration comedy - one character refers specifically to playwright William Wycherly - but the humor is relentlessly bleak, and the judgments of human folly are unrelievedly harsh. Be prepared to squirm. And don't hate yourself for laughing out loud.

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