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Dirt on a Salesman

In the Company of Men
Talking Trash: Aaron Eckhart (left) and Matt Malloy play misogynist sales reps on the prowl.

'In the Company of Men' is Restoration farce without the farce

By Richard von Busack

SOMETIMES ALL a film offers is its ambiance. Neil LaBute's independent feature In the Company of Men masquerades as a critique of dick-wielding male executives, but background is all it has to recommend it.

The setting is some nameless city in the grain belt, possibly LaBute's native Fort Wayne, Ind. The action unfolds in bland, suffocating offices, with tiny windows revealing nothing but the building nextdoor; in domestic airport terminals and business-hotel bars; in anonymous restaurants, done up in mock-industrial brick. The characters are rigid salesmen in some barely functioning company with plenty of overtime and head-chopping. You don't really have any idea what work is carried out there.

Silhouetted against this harrowing Everyoffice, the few performers (with the exception of Stacy Edwards) don't even function as convincing caricatures of human beings. Still, the scary authenticity of the settings has undoubtedly convinced reviewers that the melodramatic plot (a Restoration farce without the farce; Dangerous Liaisons done by a Mamet imitator) is a commentary on Sexism in Our Society.

This background realism helped In the Company of Men land an award at the Sundance Film Festival and has spurred comments such as the following by Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly: "LaBute lets poisons flow. Maybe healing will follow." I was very grateful for Schwarzbaum's recent feminist critique of My Best Friend's Wedding, but here I think she's confused moviegoers with phlebotomists.

In the Company of Men is a bitter examination of misogyny. The more dominant of the two male leads, a tall, conventionally handsome man with the tip-off name Chad Piercewell (Aaron Eckhart), is mad at all the women in the world. Chad and a fellow exec named Howard (Matt Malloy) are about to be sent on assignment to straighten out a regional office.

To amuse himself while in the sticks, and to get back at women, Chad talks the short, balding, submissive Howard into mutually seducing and abandoning a woman. As if that were not bad enough, their chosen victim, Christine (Edwards), is deaf. The plan goes well at first, but Howard's moral qualms get in the way.

Edwards is not deaf in real life, and she doesn't sound like any deaf person you've ever heard. Listening to her is like listening to someone with a foreign accent from a country that doesn't really exist. Aside from hearing this alluring, oddly musical voice, there isn't much to do except to bask in the awfulness and wait for some twist in the story. The story, however, doesn't twist--it just drills.

These excessive, mirthless parodies of salaried pit vipers don't haunt you, because they don't breathe. In the Company of Men doesn't change that two-dimensional image, doesn't flesh out the stereotype. Instead, the film reaffirms prejudices, making LaBute's painful story more like a cup of warm milk than a shot of poison.

In the Company of Men (R; 93 min.), directed and written by Neil LaBute, photographed by Tony Hettinger and starring Aaron Eckhart and Stacy Edwards.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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