Although Neil LaBute''s audacious debut film, In the Company of Men, is a tough act to follow, the writer-director''s sophomore effort, Your Friends and Neighbors, finds LaBute''s audacity hardy and intact, even if it now seems a little more predictable and mannered.
LaBute''s subject matter still finds its punch from the banal cruelty of which human relationships are capable. Only now, in this follow-up film, LaBute has focused his lens on the bedroom instead of the boardroom. His constellation of characters here has doubled, from three to six, and now includes women among society''s perpetrators of contemptuous immorality.
LaBute''s narrative structure and visual strategies are rigorously crafted, bespeaking an almost mathematical calculation that, in compellingly contradictory ways, both enhances the dramatic experience while undermining its very authenticity. What''s never in doubt, however, is the authenticity of the dialogue: LaBute writes conversations as though eavesdropping were his full-time occupation. The language is cutting, foul-mouthed, and raw: Words are the ammunition of articulate savages. In this, his language is given an able assist from a uniformly brilliant crop of actors. Yet the people he depicts are our "friends and neighbors," our recognizable and ordinary selves rather than the distanced corporate villains of In the Company of Men who make a conscious pact to "go out and hurt someone."
This time out, LaBute''s characters really hurt the ones they love, or the ones they bed (occasionally one and the same). The story is set in some unnamed urban center and, likewise, all six characters remain nameless throughout the course of the film, although the credits list their names as a curious sing-song mix-and-match of sameness: Mary, Terri, Cheri, Barry, Cary, and Jerry. Jerry (Ben Stiller) is an over-analytical drama professor with a penchant for Restoration comedy and a physical appearance that I think more than a little resembles that of LaBute. Jerry''s domestic partner Terri (Catherine Keener, the indie film actress par excellence) is a cold, practical sort who just wishes Jerry would shut up while they are making love. Jerry prompts the movie''s roundelay when he propositions the wife of his best friend Barry (Aaron Eckhart, who poured on the flab for this role as the cuckolded husband following his role as the well-toned predator in Company of Men).
Sex between Jerry and his wife Mary (Amy Brenneman) has become unsatisfying; Jerry readily admits to the guys that the best sex he ever had was with himself. To even the score with Jerry, Terri takes Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) as a lover, but the film''s showiest role belongs to Jason Patric''s Cary, a cynically amoral cad who admits to the vilest of behaviors and indeed, is seen prior to the film''s opening credits practicing sexual sincerity into a tape recorder while masturbating.
Your Friends and Neighbors is nothing if not neatly structured: the compositions, the repetitive set-pieces, the camera movements, and character balance. And though it''s a pleasure to watch, the payoff is mostly cosmetic. Perhaps because In the Company of Men was such a total triumph of form, means, and content, everything else LaBute does will seem diminished by comparison. He has certainly carved out an identity for himself as our smartest scenarist of the dark side of human nature. Whether many of us will want to look is another question entirely.