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Flogging the Dummies

[whitespace] Your Friends and Neighbors
Bruce Bermelin

In the Company of Jerks: Jerry (Ben Stiller, left) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart) listen to a tale of sodomy spun by Cary (Jason Patric) in 'Your Friends and Neighbors.'

Neil LaBute's second film is even uglier than his first

By Richard von Busack

Hostility isn't enough. For sheer repulsiveness, writer/director Neil LaBute tops his last film, In the Company of Men, with the big scene in his newest, Your Friends and Neighbors. The testosterone-poisoned villain of the piece, Cary (a brutish-looking Jason Patric), sweats in a steam room with two old friends from college. He tells how he helped three other men rape a fellow male student back in high school. Cary goes into details about how nice and tight the boy was. The camera creeps up slowly to record the story in a reverent close-up. "It was a complete revenge fuck, which is always the best," Cary gloats. The surprise is that the punk loved it as much as his rapist did--or so Cary tells us, untrustworthy narrator that he is.

The two friends in this steam-room scene are Barry (Aaron Eckhart, the macho heel of In the Company of Men), a sexually frustrated average guy with a '70s mustache and a $7 haircut, and Jerry (Ben Stiller), a weaselly, promiscuous college drama teacher. (Stiller, of There's Something About Mary, grew a stubbly little beard for this part; it makes him look like a pygmy goat.)

Neither Jerry nor Barry is a borderline psychopath--as Cary probably is. Still, they listen to Cary's San Quentin bedtime story without comment or protest. In this ugly scene, LaBute illuminates Jerry and Barry's moral relativism. The two are such believers in sex for its own sake that they can't raise an objection to Cary's horrible story. It's imperative that they stay mute. One gagging noise or angry squawk would prick LaBute's fantasy of '90s monster-guy behavior like the gas-filled balloon it is.

The characters resemble a Tinkertoy set of limp poles and dry holes. The three men all have bad sex with the women in their lives. Mary (Amy Brenneman) doesn't feel sexually aroused by her out-of-it husband, Barry, who is reduced to masturbating for satisfaction. Terri (Catherine Keener) wants her live-in lover, Jerry, to be silent when he's on top of her. (All six characters, male and female, have rhyming names.)

Jerry, however, is a compulsive yammerer in bed, and eventually Terri turns to sleeping with another woman, Cheri (Natassja Kinski), to try to get some peace and quiet. Meanwhile, the promiscuous Jerry sneaks Mary's phone number in hopes of getting together with her on the sly. Mary, you'll remember, is not only the wife of his good friend Barry but also the best friend of his live-in girlfriend.

All the relationships in the film are betrayed by stolen treats that don't have any savor, and after the three couples have shuffled partners, what's left is a triumph by the most vicious of the fuckers, Cary--in a reprise of the same unbelievable ending of In the Company of Men.

Your Friends and Neighbors appears radical in the context of American movies until it is compared with its European models. Patric's sickening monologue is a takeoff from one of the most eerily erotic moments in the movies: Mireille Darc's toneless description of her three-way scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend: The lone good joke in Friends and Neighbors is probably lifted from Bertrand Blier's 1976 Femmes Fatales--in Your Friends and Neighbors, Cary is a gynecologist who hates women.

The lacerating quarrels in Your Friends and Neighbors are like the ping-pong-rhythmed arguments in Contempt between Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot. (And LaBute invites the comparison, flashing us the poster from Godard's film.) But Bardot's character wasn't as passive as Terri and Mary are.

Like the writer Angela Carter, Godard believed, "If there's a beast in man, it meets its match in women." It's difficult to imagine Bardot standing still and crying--as Keener's Terri does--after absorbing a load of verbal abuse from the woman-hating Cary. Unlike Godard or Blier, LaBute doesn't intend to claw open a rotting social system. Instead, he's made a hateful Gothic version of the only genre even more tiresome than the nouveau-gangster film, namely the group romantic comedy.

LaBute's nasty vision of how the promiscuous live is just so much ax-grinding; by taking the pleasure out of all the sex in the movie, he's rigged the argument. Even the most hardened cocksmen have some sort of affection for women, although LaBute revives the old wheeze about how Don Juan was probably gay, anyway. (Cary's monologue about forced sodomy is the answer to his own question "What's the best sex you ever had in your life?")

LaBute's attitude toward women in his films is the same you hear from religious fundamentalists and Andrea Dworkin: women need to be protected from the uncontrollable lusts of men. LaBute's twist is more Christian than Dworkin's--even turning lesbian doesn't do anything for Terri.

In the Company of Men's partisans defended the film in metaphors about its necessity--how it was as healthful as draining abscesses and emptying spleens. Expect to hear these yummy figures of speech again in reviews of Your Friends and Neighbors. It's a common delusion in critics: it's not art if it doesn't hurt. LaBute's gimmick consists of castigating sinners in tasteful, modernist surroundings, and there are always plenty of guilty people to fill up the pews. He gives us all the fun of a ferocious Baptist sermon in all the swank of an Episcopalian church.

Your Friends and Neighbors (R; 100 min.), directed and written by Neil LaBute, photographed by Nancy Schreiber and starring Jason Patric, Ben Stiller and Aaron Eckhart.

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From the August 24-September 6, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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