Arts: Sense and sensibility

Neil LaBute's latest film is another portrait of bad behaviour with laughs. At whose expense?
`If anything, they probably really just feel as if I've graduated to misanthropy: `He doesn't just hate women, he hates everyone.'" Poor Neil LaBute. The 35-year-old American playwright and film-maker fashioned a withering attack on the barbarous sport of corporate man with 1998's In the Company of Men, and got labelled a misogynist.

He decides to even things up in Your Friends & Neighbours and place women as well as men under his scrutiny, and,well, he can guess how his critics are going to react. Imagine thirtysomething scripted by David Mamet and directed by Harold Pinter, and you'll get a flavour of LaBute's second feature, a black morality tale for the Nineties. The men whose company we kept in his debut, Chad and Howard, ruthlessly courted and dumped a deaf secretary just because they could. Your Friends & Neighbours doesn't offer up its villains quite so easily.

Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Aaron Eckhart, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric and Nastassia Kinski are, variously, doctors, journalists and lecturers, swathed in Calvin Klein and good intentions. Surely they're not going to wreck their own and each other's relationships and lives for a quick rush of ego? Well, let's just say that the film's Valentine weekend release indicates a healthy sense of humour on the part of the distributors.

Your Friends & Neighbours is another film about betrayal from the happily married practising Mormon. This time, however, it's not so clear who the victims are.

"[In the Company of Men] was like watching a car crash in slow motion: you're told what's about to happen and there's nothing you can do about it," explains LaBute, gnomically. "[In the film] there are cars going round the block in opposite ways. You think: `God, if they're not careful, someone's gonna hit the other one.' But you're not sure when or on which corner." Notoriously, In the Company of Men pursued Chad and Howard's declaration, "Let's hurt somebody", to its ghastly conclusion. To a lesser extent, Your Friends & Neighbours has its own catch-phrase: "Is it me?" "I began to see it as a useless mantra that the men at least repeated just to sound as if they cared about other people," says LaBute. "Jason's character was pretty sure that when he does ask it he's quite sure that the problem lies with someone else."

So, men are still the real bastards? Not quite. The way LaBute sees it, all six characters are too busy with their own problems to be properly sensitive to anyone else's, but at least the women try to sort theirs out. For instance, Barry (Aaron Eckhart, in a role very different to the arch manipulator he played in ITCOM) is impotent, and his wife, Mary (Amy Brenneman), has difficulties with sex.

"Barry keeps pushing towards intercourse rather than just the physical act of just holding someone. Mary takes off in a different direction, but at least she's trying. She's not just casually looking for a good lay."

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Jason Patric's character, Cary, is a handsome, highly eligible, soulless and utterly calculating doctor who knows exactly what he wants. In the film's most chilling scene, he recounts to Barry and Jerry his most intense sexual experience, the gang rape of a younger boy while he was away at camp as a teenager. Patric, last seen in the abysmal Speed 2, is a revelation as the unblinking, blue- eyed predator. (In fact, he'd make a great Patrick Bateman, the eponymous Wall Street killer in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, and LaBute admits that "before there was any sort of flap about DiCaprio" he pitched the same idea to the American Psycho producers.) Patric had originally approached LaBute with the idea of producing Your Friends & Neighbours, which he eventually did, but LaBute persuaded him that Cary was too good a part to pass on. LaBute dismisses the suggestion that it might have been a risk to hand over so much control to the bruised ego of a failed action star, adding that Patric's name opened Hollywood doors that would otherwise have remained shut.

"And he's so damned beautiful to look at! I extended that idea that I had in Company, of beautiful people saying awful things. For some reason we seem to be drawn, moth-like, to `the beautiful people'. Continually, we forgive them: `Oh God, I must have misunderstood him - he couldn't have said anything that awful.'" Anyway, reckons LaBute, Cary may be a monster but at least you know where you stand with him. According to him, Ben Stiller's character, outwardly decent, is far worse. "Jerry is the one who really bugs me because he professes this moral tone. He seems to look at Cary as if he's a lesser species, yet again and again he makes the worst choices." If not as flagrantly as Jerry, every character in Your Friends & Neighbours' mistakes selfishness for self-respect. And LaBute is in no doubt where this deceit originates: "These people seem to have graduated from their parents' vision of the `Me' generation - they're trying so desperately to fulfil their own needs that they almost don't realise that anyone else has them." Nevertheless, watching the six characters limp from one disastrous relationship to another is a bleak, if darkly comic, experience. For LaBute, however, their dogged persistence is something of a virtue: "What keeps it from being hopeless is that they do continue, coming out of bad relationships." The film's shock ending would seem to be the strongest argument against this upbeat conclusion. But the most he'll concede is that the film is "sceptical" about its protagonists' motivations. Still, it's no accident that Jerry is seen lecturing on Wycherley's The Country Wife. The qualities of Restoration comedy that LaBute admires - "the rapier wit and the swift-flowing movement, how words become action" - are palpable in Your Friends & Neighbours. Don't forget, though, says the director, that the Restoration dramatists were taking pot shots at the very audience they were writing for.

"It wasn't for no reason that I called it Your Friends & Neighbours. It's inclusive and indicting at the same time," insists LaBute. "Don't kid yourself - there's traits here that must ring familiar."

`Your Friends & Neighbours' is released on 12 February