Love's Neighbors Lost
Neil La Bute goes for the throat
By Noel Murray and Donna Bowman
SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: Your Friends and Neighbors is the follow-up to writer-director Neil LaBute's provocative In the Company of Men, which rose from the festival circuit to become one of 1997's most talked about (if least seen) movies. LaBute's latest is more accomplished, expanding In the Company of Men's bitter love triangle to a hexagon and opening up the movie's single-file plot to encompass a range of acidic blackout sketches--some hilariously insightful, some eye-rollingly overwrought.
Ben Stiller stars as a drama professor trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a chilly advertising copywriter (Catherine Keener). Looking for a little warmth, Stiller propositions the journalist wife (Amy Brenneman) of his businessman best friend (Aaron Eckhart). Brenneman, unable to express herself sexually (despite her overeager husband), accepts the offer. Meanwhile, Keener finds quiet contentment in the arms of an attractive artist's assistant (Nastassja Kinski). Hovering above the fray is a predatory, aggressive doctor (Jason Patric), who provides a role model of unfettered masculinity to gym buddies Stiller and Eckhart.
The main selling point of LaBute's films is his pungent dialogue, which is as refreshingly blunt in Neighbors as it was in Men. LaBute's characters talk explicitly about their motives and desires, and there's a voyeuristic appeal to hearing Keener talk about her pathological need for silence during sex, or listening to Patric boast about how he humiliated some spiteful ex-lover. LaBute's dialogue has been compared to David Mamet, but it lacks Mamet's musicality, or the multilayered way that Mamet's words conceal more than they reveal. LaBute is more straightforward, and though his characters do use words to hurt, they don't really play games with the language--only with each other.
The real quality that LaBute brings to cinema is his way with actors. The cold heart of In the Company of Men was its star, Aaron Eckhart, whose portrayal of an opportunistic rat was as charismatic as it was oily. This time out, Eckhart plays a doughy schlub, and it's Jason Patric who gets to be the complete prick (almost literally). Ben Stiller's performance, meanwhile, is revelatory; in his other recent movies, he has been honing his on-screen cadence, letting his sentences wither because he can't find an impressive enough word or because he's afraid to say what's on his mind. His character in Your Friends and Neighbors approaches the world with a plaster smile, fumbling for what he imagines to be a normal human connection.
It would be convenient to say that the ultimate failure of Your Friends and Neighbors is LaBute's inability to cover the distaff side with the insight that he brings to the male. Admittedly, Brenneman, Keener, and Kinski play one-dimensional characters (although all three actresses add welcome nuance); but what's more troubling is that LaBute uses them as overly convenient foils, to make his points about the terminal dissatisfaction of long-term sexual partners. As in Men, the plot of Neighbors is disappointingly contrived, with the final couplings of the characters designed for maximum audience shock.
Just last week, I saw Simon Birch, which takes the painful moments of life--adolescence, losing a family member, accepting responsibility--and reduces them to easily digestible, sanitized, crowd-pleasing cuteness. Now there's Your Friends and Neighbors, which takes the mundane activities of life--dinner parties, shopping, working out at the gym--and exaggerates them into intense rounds of scathing psychological warfare. The former approach appeals to mainstream audiences, who generally fear being challenged; the latter approach tickles critics, who often praise such psychodramas as unflinchingly realistic. Both camps are, in their way, deluding themselves. LaBute's shoehorned commentary on modern life is as phony as the cross-stitched sentiments of Simon Birch. (And Simon Birch is as cynical as Neighbors, but that's a topic for another review.)
Still, LaBute has a gift that's too vivid to ignore. Yes, it would be nice if his characters weren't all surfaces--if every now and then we got a hint that his villains had weaknesses, and his heroes had spines. And yes, he'll be a better filmmaker when he can learn to turn his camera away from faces and let some visual details pick up the slack that his dialogue often leaves.
But there are moments in Your Friends and Neighbors of crystalline profundity--a woman sadly putting her rings back on after a disastrous attempt at an affair, a man futilely inquiring "Is it me?" when he's unable to masturbate--that make LaBute's career worth encouraging. Someday he'll relax enough to let his characters find their own way, and when he does, even he may be shocked by what they end up doing.
The New York ObserverWorking-class philosophers, laconic sexpots, and romantic heroes with criminal pasts populate the films of Hal Hartley. These elements mark Hartley as a citizen of IndieWorld--that peculiar North American cinemascape where the dialogue is deadpan, "quirky" vies with "ironic" for the dominant attitude, and violence occurs routinely when the plot hits a wall. In fact, Hartley is practically the emperor of this world; in his films Trust, Simple Men, and Amateur, he fussed over oddball characters and weird twists, trying to squeeze art out of affectlessness.
Henry Fool is Hartley's epic. His latest film clocks in at a quarter past two hours, covers almost eight years in a low-income New York family's life, and touches on a grand theme: the intersection of art and celebrity. It's also a low comedy: It opens with one of the leading men vomiting on a girl's bare behind, and it features a key scene in which the other leading man proposes to his girlfriend while in the throes of explosive diarrhea. All this is surely part of the vision.
The title character (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) is a lowlife with delusions of grandeur. Having spent time in prison for making time with a minor (who swore she was 18), Henry emerges with a notebook full of scribblings that he calls "his confession," and with a determination not to let the real world keep him from pursuing his art. He takes up residence in the basement of a bizarre nuclear family--suicidal mother Mary Grim (Maria Porter), her slutty daughter Fay (Parker Posey), and her emotionally stunted garbageman son, Simon (James Urbaniak).
Henry's detachment from life and his passion for literature fascinate Simon, so Simon starts a notebook of his own, containing a long, profane poem. Henry encourages Simon to get the poem published, but no publisher is interested, just the gaggle of teenage girls who hang out at the local coffee shop. One of the girls posts the poem on the Internet, and Simon becomes an overnight sensation, galvanizing America's youth and scandalizing America's tastemakers.
Hartley's interest in the farcical elements of his story is minimal. As with all of his films, Henry Fool adopts a bemused attitude toward the behavior of humans in bizarre situations. This distinctive, "Hartley-esque" tone is funny at times, but it becomes frustrating that Hartley is persistently unwilling to portray genuine passion, or to advance a classifiable point of view toward his characters. With the exception of Simon, who's a blank, everyone in Henry Fool is a poseur. But Hartley doesn't seem to be making a point about poseurs, or the perception of art, or indeed about anything. He's merely using the illusion of thematic depth to spruce up what is fundamentally a too-laid-back character comedy.
If Henry Fool succeeds at all, it's because of Hartley's uncanny knack for creating a distinct community onscreen. His luckless band of vacant losers tends to grow on you, and I found myself wanting to see how their little drama played out. But I also found myself wishing that Hartley would make the effort to bring some order to their chaotic lives, to assign some significance to their story. Unfortunately, that's not Hartley's game--he's too cool to care.
Two right feetIf all of Hollywood's attempts to cash in on indie film sensations were as sweet and unprepossessing as Dance With Me, they'd pack the multiplexes every night. Director Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God) and screenwriter Daryl Matthews, who is also one of the film's choreographers, stick close to the spirit of the movies they're imitating--Strictly Ballroom and Shall We Dance?, most notably--and in their best moments they deliver the same Top Hat-meets-Tin Cup thrills. The movie's energy and vivacious dance sequences more than compensate for a simple plot cribbed from all its predecessors.
For a shamelessly small, sentimental project like this, the formulaic plot itself is as comfortable as one of Fred Astaire's worn-out tap shoes; you're relieved not to be asked to swallow anything more ludicrous than usual. Latin pop star Chayanne plays Raphael, a mechanic who leaves Cuba to find his father in Houston. Pops turns out to be Kris Kristofferson (in a non-dancing role, mercifully), who runs a dance studio full of colorful characters: Joan Plowright as an aging flirt, Jane Krakowski as a ballet-trained freestylist, Beth Grant as an acid-tongued receptionist. For romance, there's Vanessa L. Williams as Ruby, a professional dancer and teacher who's determined to win the Latin dancing title at the upcoming Las Vegas championships, even if it means partnering with her jerky ex and forfeiting all the joy of dancing. Of course, it's Raphael's job to teach her that real dancing comes from "feeling the music" rather than doing steps.
There are no unexpected plot twists here, but there never were in an Astaire-Rogers picture, either. At their worst the non-dancing scenes are amiable, short, and not taken too seriously; at their best they convey a simple delight in the fact that, in the movies, the person you're meant to love is always right under your nose. And the dance sequences, which are frequent and varied, occasionally induce goosebumps. A set-to on a salsa-club dance floor, with partners passed around and sudden group steps emerging out of thin air, is the most original dance sequence I've seen in years. In sharp contrast, but just as effective, is the final rhumba in the championships, a vivid, theatrical, melodramatic three minutes of film that Haines shoots in tight close-ups of Williams' pained face.
Strictly Ballroom became a cause célébre because of its Australian origin and its then novel setting at a dance competition. It hardly seems fair that Dance With Me is likely to earn critical sniffs because of its American pedigree and its now familiar premise. To the beat of popular music of every stripe, the filmmakers and performers entertain with originality where it's demanded and easy-chair routine where we'd rather not be challenged. In these bigger-is-better days, such intimate, small-time entertainment has to be cherished.
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