The Critics: Thou shalt not care about anyone but thyself

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Your Friends and Neighbors (18) I Think I Do (PG) Don't Go Breaking My Heart (PG) Switchblade Sisters (18) Hotel du Nord (PG) Madeline (U) Jack Frost (PG) My Giant (PG)

N eil LaBute's last film, In the Company of Men (1998), was about two men, one a dedicated bastard, the other malleable and gibbering, going on a business trip and being foul to a deaf secretary. Lots of people hated it so much that for a while after its release, actor Aaron Eckhart (the dedicated bastard) had to take taxis everywhere because women kept punching him in the street. Between that film and making LaBute's new one, it looks like Eckhart hasn't stopped eating buns. He's now very fat, and no longer in the least bit handsome or dangerous. It's almost as though he's being punished for being so horrible in the last film - by having to play somebody inconsequential instead, sitting lardy and lonely over plates of spaghetti.

If this theory stands up, God knows how fat Jason Patric will be by the time LaBute's third film comes round. In Your Friends and Neighbors, Patric outdoes Eckhart as the cruel character who hates women and hates life. He rages and bullies and admires himself. He plays one of a group of friends (men and women) who spend most of their time smothering their mutual dislike and worrying about erections. They have affairs with each other, exercising their sexual rights in bleak bedrooms all over New York. They don't enjoy anything very much, and glumly promote the film's message that "caring is a sickness".

LaBute got away with this fastidious nihilism in Company of Men because he really seemed to be concerned with the fall-out of the nine-to-five - with deadlines and targets, with lives snatched between meetings, with being cemented in, and frightened, and cross. But Your Friends and Neighbors is much more unpleasant: more expensive but less hungry, and brimful with an atmosphere of collusion between the director and his characters. LaBute seems actually to be gloating over rottenness: picking apart the one who trusts you, finding that everyone you touch is a forgery. This fascination feels like a terrible ailment.

I Think I Do is also about a group of friends who are obsessed with each other's erections; but at least they get to enjoy them. Alexis Arquette and Christian Maelan play college friends who are reunited at a former housemate's wedding. Arquette used to be in love with Maelan, and now Maelan is out of the closet and hot for Arquette, who is recently engaged to Sterling, his soap-star boyfriend. We are supposed to find Sterling superficial, the gang of old friends audacious and daring; but I loved Sterling and could have watched him apply face-packs for hours. All the rest are just a distraction, and make you think over-fondly of the babble in The Big Chill.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart is a very middle-class sitcom posing as a film. As in all sitcoms, the characters have many more emotions than real people could cope with, and are always making packed lunches. Jenny Seagrove plays a widow who is hypnotised by her lascivious dentist (Charles Dance), and accidentally falls in love with a sports therapist (Anthony Edwards). Producer Bill Kenwright (who mortgaged his house to fund the film) must have done some bold chatting to hook Edwards, famous for being the tall doctor whose (stupid) wife left him in the television series ER. His affable American is very much at home with the rest of the affable cast, taking affable sallies out to Primrose Hill with the dog. (Nobody in British films is in love until they take the dog to Primrose Hill).

Jack Hill's 1975 exploitation flick Switchblade Sisters is such a favourite of Quentin Tarantino's that he has backed this rerelease. Suddenly everybody is pretending to be excited about the film, which is outrageously precious of them, because Switchblade Sisters always was rot, and still is. A gang of delinquent girls high-kick and scrap with their boyfriends, who all look like John Travolta's plain cousin. Sometimes they go to prison for being so hard, whereupon they are sexually threatened by the female wardens, who are like huge schoolgirl dominatrices trussed up in itchy jerkins. The film pretends to be salient and radical, but the girls' shorts are just too tight.

The genuinely melodramatic re-release this week is Marcel Carne's 1938 Hotel du Nord, still original with its cast of prostitutes, trifling criminals, and lovers crushed by cowardice and infatuation. In this film, Carne's exhilarating brand of poetic realism is countered by such a heavy fatalism that Valentine couples might be inspired to drink long and hard afterwards.

The best of the children's releases this week is Madeline, which is born from Ludwig Bemelman's drawings of a procession of little girls through 1950s Paris. Hatty Jones is Madeline, an orphan in a school for young ladies. She has the smallest nose I have ever seen. The school is threatened when the landlord (Nigel Hawthorne, bored) decides to sell up. The action is just a string of sweet episodes brought together by Frances McDormand as the neurotic nun-in-charge. It's pleasant enough, although there is something discomfiting about watching Jones squeezing out plump tears for the camera. Jack Frost is less appealing. Michael Keaton plays a father who dies in an accident and is reincarnated as a snowman so he can tend to his grieving son. Jim Henson's Creature Workshop must have designed the snowman over a boozy lunch, because Jack Frost is very much a bloke in a suit. The children at my screening were loudly insulted.

My Giant is a melancholy affair starring Billy Crystal as a tinny show- biz agent who meets a love-sick giant (real-life basketball player Gheorghe Muresan) in Romania. So, we have Muresan being torn free of the magnet of family and following his dreams, and all manner of hype about distinguishing between hypocrisy and friendship. All the time, sentiment is wielded like a truncheon, and the talk of compassion feels placatory. As Crystal and Muresan trudge about together, I was reminded of something Kenneth Williams wrote about wanting "a companion with which to share the lonely mystery". Films like these, that throw up such pain and peculiarity and then comfort with flash-flood warmth, are dreadful for children - as an audience, they are always being treated to inappropriate emotional Polaroids. This is a spiv of a film.

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