Film: All poison and no darts

The Big Picture
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Your Friends And Neighbors (18) Director: Neil Labute

Starring: Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric

100 Minutes

One presumes it was a joke on the distributors' part to schedule the release of Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors on Valentine's weekend. It's hard to think of a film less likely to promote the cause of romantic togetherness, unless you count this writer-director's debut effort of last year, In the Company of Men. In that movie LaBute took for his model the duplicitous machinations of Restoration comedy and recast it in the harsh accents of the corporate American male, presenting the hateful but compelling story of two white-collar executives who woo a deaf office temp and simultaneously dump her.

After being roundly beaten with the misogynist stick in the US for In the Company of Men, LaBute has broadened his field of fire: this time men and women compete to be as appalling as each other. Its hatred seems more even-handed, though you'd be excused for not rejoicing at the news. The film daisychains an ensemble of urban thirtysomethings who are, to one degree or another, sex- and self-obsessed. (In LaBute's world, the two appear indivisible). Our first glimpse of Cary (Jason Patric) sets the tone: he's in bed practising his pillow talk with stop-watch and tape recorder, just prior to the arrival of his latest amour. Barry (Aaron Eckhart) prefers masturbation to making love with his wife, Mary (Amy Brenneman), who may be frigid: "She's wonderful," says Barry, "but she's just not... me." Jerry (Ben Stiller) has been rebuffed for talking during sex by his girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener), who is later disposed to declare, "Fucking is fucking. It's not a time for sharing. I don't care what anybody says."

There are far nastier lines than that, but in their callous self-absorption those three sentences represent the closest thing to a philosophy these characters share. Jerry, who's a drama teacher, tells his class that for all the "language and lace" of Wycherley, "it's always about fucking". Or, in his case, it's always about fucking talking: Jerry just doesn't know when to shut up. Even on an adulterous rendezvous with his best friend's wife, he can't help jawing on about "fate" and "optimism" and - the last thing the wife wants to hear - her husband. When, finally, Jerry's unable to get it up, you feel that something like just deserts have been served. The mood of betrayal takes hold: Terri falls into bed with a beautiful gallery assistant, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), while Jerry, in a fit of pique, tells his best friend that he's cuckolded him.

You will have gathered that none of this makes for an edifying illustration of modern sexual manners. More surprisingly, it doesn't make for a very entertaining one either. As he did in his first film, LaBute uses his camera dispassionately, like an eavesdropper, and works almost entirely within enclosed spaces. He contrasts the civilised settings of bookstore, restaurant and art gallery with the savagely unpleasant things men and women say to one another. But whereas one could never be sure if Chad and Howard in In the Company of Men were plotting the woman's downfall or each other's, the action of Your Friends and Neighbors never sets up a long game: we always know as much, if not more, than his characters do. This might not matter were the language as barbed as the misanthropy, but there's a halting, Pinterish blankness at the heart of this movie. LaBute is so much in love with the idea of people's selfish, despicable ways that he has overreached his means of attack; he has all the poison, but no darts.

This shortcoming is most evident in his depiction of the Jason Patric character, a stud who puts the art into heartlessness. To be honest, his routine with the stop-watch and tape recorder seems quite out of keeping with his avowed cynicism - surely he would regard even the pretence of enhancing a woman's pleasure as beneath him? His big set-piece is a monologue in a steam-room about the best sex he's ever had: as Jerry and Barry listen, half excited, half appalled, Cary reveals that the best of all was, in fact, a boy he raped in summer camp. It's difficult to tell whether he's making it up or not, but its effect is to suggest a rather less dramatic possibility than was actually intended: could be he's gay. In any case, Cary's loathsomeness feels way overcooked. Malignity requires more stealth than a poster-boy with ripped torso and a perpetual glaze of boredom.

The rest of the cast seems enervated by LaBute's virulence. Catherine Keener, wonderful in Tom DiCillo's movies, is saddled here with such a snitty-bitch role you can't see how anyone might fall for her. Aaron Eckhart, who bit off his lines with vicious delight in Company, is a bumbling sad sack, while Amy Brenneman and Nastassja Kinski are little more than emotional punchbags. Only Ben Stiller manages to establish a character; his Jerry is a creep, but at least he goes some way to making that creepiness involving.

The most common complaint levelled at realistic movies such as this goes, "I didn't care enough about the characters". LaBute could get away with this if he gave his characters better lines, better scenes - some sense, at least, that their cruelty is enjoyable or interesting to them, as it was to the powdered double-dealers of the Restoration comedies he so admires. No: his aim is simply to compel the audience into guilty recognition of their own fallen state. The implication is that Terri, Jerry, Cary et al are just like our nearest and dearest. But are they really? They're not my friends or my neighbours. And I dare say they're not yours either.