Film: All poison and no darts

The Big Picture

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone