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By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  It seems fair to say that our lives have become drenched with sex. It oozes off the shelves when we're buying clothes, cologne, underarm deodorant. It slides off the pages of magazines and into our laps. It radiates from our TV screens, where we watch talk-show guests make their sexual confessions during the day and the President of the United States make his sexual confessions in the evening. So maybe it's no surprise that, sexually speaking, we have reached our saturation point.

Hollywood, of course, has played no small role in this, either. With one gritty sex scene after another, the movie industry has pretty much rubbed our senses down to the nub, pandering to our most prurient interests. But how many films can you think of--mainstream ones, I mean, ones that you don't have to keep dropping quarters to see--that are devoted wholly to the subject of sex, in all its horrifying and unhandsome detail? In Your Friends & Neighbors, filmmaker Neil LaBute attempts to do exactly that. And in a way, it's something of a triumph. While his aim is to strip sex down to its pulpy core for everyone to see, what he really does--for perhaps the first time in motion picture history--is make sex seem really uninteresting.

The premise of Your Friends & Neighbors, for starters, is by no means an original one. Six white, upper-class urbanites mill around in the same tightly-wound social circle, just like Woody Allen and his troupe did 20 years ago. The men meet in bars, drink imported beer and complain about women. The women sit in living rooms, gripping glasses of chablis by the stem, and talk about their "best time." And through it all, everyone schemes, connives and quietly cheats on each other.

The idea of a sexual sextet might be good movie fodder, but LaBute's little hexagon falls apart quickly, because his characters are too flimsy to support it. First there's Jerry (played by Ben Stiller), a nice but nattering drama teacher who favors different techniques in bed than his live-in girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener) does. Then there's Barry (thesped by Aaron Eckhart), the nice but impotent husband of Mary (Amy Brenneman), who's so thoroughly repressed that not even a cake could rise if she were in the room. Rounding out the line-up are two singles, Cary (Jason Patric), a sociopathic gynecologist, and Cheri, a lesbian artist, brought to life by a coy and jaw-droppingly cute Nastassja Kinski. They're all identifiable types, certainly, but perhaps too identifiable. Rather than living, breathing people whose sexual exploits we might relate to, or at least be interested in, they are more like cardboard cut-outs. Because we only get to see the bedside aspect of their lives, they come across as nothing more than walking libidos, which makes for a moviegoing experience about as deep as Deep Throat.

It doesn't help matters, either, that LaBute (who also penned the script) goes to such lengths to make his players seem sophisticated, as well as tawdry. In an effort to give his characters more turgor, he feeds them plenty of high-tone dialogue, so we know that they're "smart." But this only results in impossible lines--lines that the actors can hardly get their mouths around--like "You and your fucking semiotics" or "That guy reads his fuckin' Byron." Few of us, it's safe to say, have friends or neighbors who sound like that.

But most of all, the greatest weakness of Your Friends & Neighbors is what's supposed to be its strength: its laser-tight focus on sex. Neil LaBute is known for his ability to startle, which he got down pat in his debut film, In the Company of Men. But here his attempts ring hollow. The opening sequences hemorrhage with sweaty humping, dirty talk and intricate descriptions of what's going where (though without any nudity, thanks to some discreet camera play). And yet when the dialogue finally begins, that's about sex, too. If Jerry isn't fighting with Terri about sex, he's talking about it with his mistress, Mary. And if Barry isn't lamenting his impotence, he's talking about masturbating. With the exception of one scene, in which Patric and Eckhart discuss "morality" (with all the subtlety of two vaudevillians), every single scene revolves around copulation. In the end, all it proves is that sex, when taken in large doses, simply loses its potency.

If it doesn't quite succeed in its mission, though, Your Friends & Neighbors still serves a purpose. It's celluloid proof that there is a limit, somewhere, to the power of sex in our lives. In an era filled with White House blow job jokes and $10 impotence pills, the shock is not new anymore. It might just be that the honeymoon is over. As Ben Stiller says to his drama class in the earliest frames of the film, "It's all about fucking." And Your Friends & Neighbors certainly is. Maybe we should take pleasure in the fact that, finally, we want more than that.

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