Brutality a LaBute

Director dissects depraved and depersonalized urbanites

There are bound to be people who will argue that the film makes us uncomfortable because it exposes the beastliness beneath our civilized middle-class veneer. The film is nasty because it's true. Our lives really are all about sex. We're more scuzzily one-dimensional than we'd like to admit.

What I think this defense misses is the fact that people are only one-dimensional until you get inside their heads. For a supposedly serious filmmaker, LaBute has an awfully narrow concept of human nature. That's why the people in Your Friends and Neighbors remain "types." They don't learn from experience and they don't change. We don't even see what might once have attracted them to each other. They're just specimens in LaBute's insectarium.

Basically, what he's saying is this: We're all crumbums and dupes. Men are unworthy of women, who are not worth it anyway. This is the way it's always been; human nature doesn't change. The rituals LaBute exposes are, in his view, the same male-female screw sessions that dramatists have been delineating since the Greeks. Only the names -- or, in this case, the no-names -- have changed.

By setting his movie in an upscale milieu, LaBute is implicitly condemning the middle class for having the effrontery to seek its pleasures. This is a very old game. The counterculture used to play it in the '60s; now the reactionaries have stepped up to the plate. It's not just that these friends and neighbors are scum; they're bourgeois scum. What could be worse? LaBute doesn't want to let any joy into the picture; if he did, it might expose how rigged and shallow his cynicism is. A fun couple in bed would explode his depresso thesis. No one in Your Friends and Neighbors gets any pleasure from anything. The closest approximation is when the heterosexual Cary delivers a rapt three-minute monologue to his "friends" about the intense personal fulfillment he received sodomizing a student who snitched on him in high school.

It's significant that Cary, despite all his tape-recorded warm-up sex talk, is never shown actually sleeping with anyone. What we see instead are pre- or post-coital sessions with Cary rasping at his bedmates, who are usually off-camera. For him, the rasp is the real sex. Humiliating others -- his male friends as well as his women -- turns him on. Cary is the most compelling character in the movie, because at least he doesn't make any bones about who he is. He may get dangerously high inhaling the fumes of his own hellfire, but his radar is in fine working order: Without prompting, he catches the vibrations of discontent in his friends' bedrooms. Jason Patric, who also co-produced this film, has been a bland brooder in his other movies. Here, his malevolence is all of a piece with his lethal handsomeness and square-cut jaw. When Cary moves in on Terri in a bookstore and is rebuffed, he glides back into her with such cool ferocity that it's like watching a shark attack. He's a predator.

LaBute, ironically, comes along at a time when romantic love is once again being sentimentalized on-screen. Hollywood in the feminist era never really figured out what to do with guys and gals; the solution, more often than not, was to jettison women to the fringes altogether. They became ornamental adjuncts in the male action-fantasy universe.

In the shimmer of post-feminist Hollywood, men and women are once again starting to act coy and googly-eyed around each other. You can see this in a lot of the big-studio romances, ranging from Titanic and The Mask of Zorro to even a gross-out romp like There's Something About Mary. But you also see it in the acclaimed smaller stuff, such as Sliding Doors or the just-released Next Stop Wonderland. The low-budget, "independent" sector is playing the same ga-ga game as the big leagues. We've skipped over the tensions of male-female relations in the feminist era and gone directly back to the halcyon days of "Some Day My Prince (or Princess) Will Come."

With this in mind, it's easy to overvalue LaBute's funk. He comes on like a spoiler, and with his clinician's camera and killer dialogue, he certainly holds you. But he's not really going against the romantic sentimentality of the day -- he's just demonstrating how awful life is without it. In a way, he's perhaps even more of a traditionalist than the Hollywood treacle-meisters. It's possible they are just dispensing their fluff as a commercial expediency, but LaBute seems genuinely horrified by the prospect of sex without love. That's why he flays his characters so mercilessly. He wants these bourgeois elites to pay for their sins. The question I have is: Who appointed this guy judge, jury and executioner?

Your Friends and Neighbors.
Rated R.
Directed by Neil LaBute. With Ben Stiller, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric and Nastassja Kinski.

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