Love Conflicts -- Nailing Neil

Your Friends' writer/director takes a wicked route through relationships

So where does this polite, easygoing intellectual's urge to provoke and rankle come from?

Tim Slover, who served as a kind of mentor to LaBute during graduate school at Brigham Young University, and in whose playwriting class In the Company of Men was originally written, says LaBute's love of conflict comes out of his basic world view. People who think LaBute is calculatedly hip or shocking, like Quentin Tarantino -- who patched together his style from endless video rentals and trips to the art house -- are wrong, Slover says.

"In America there are problems, and those problems are covered by veneers," Slover says. "Sometimes it's a corporate veneer, sometimes it's a politically correct veneer. And it bugs him. So he writes plays that scratch past the coverings of things."

LaBute knows there's really no right time to schedule his new movie. A talky, emotionally grim film about infidelity and deception among prosperous professionals, Your Friends and Neighbors appears incongruously in a summer lineup crowded -- like most summer lineups -- with kids' movies and asteroid disaster flicks. Funny and winning as it is, LaBute's sense of humor is not likely to win over fans of There's Something About Mary; his idea of a joke is to create a soundtrack on which a chamber group called Apocalyptica plays Metallica songs as if they were Schubert.

"I don't know if there is a good time," the director says of the placement of his new movie, which some have already called this year's sex, lies, and videotape or even Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "Is it gonna be the first feel-bad movie of the summer, or the first feel-bad movie of the fall? Or the first anti-Christmas movie of the Christmas season?" [The Houston opening arrived in August.]

In short, LaBute's new film -- shot amid the genteel Victorian homes of L.A.'s Elysian Heights -- is not likely to make audiences any more comfortable than has his previous work. (One thing that's different about the new film is its budget; the first one was shot on just $25,000, most of which LaBute raised from two friends who got into auto accidents and later invested their insurance money.)

The new movie features six characters who do their best to deceive, betray or disappoint each other at every turn. Ben Stiller plays a leering theater professor who uses his sensitive-guy persona to bed his students; Jason Patric, who effectively plays the "Chad" character in this one, brags about sending a woman a faked notice, on hospital stationery, informing her that she has AIDS; Aaron Eckhart, the cruel and handsome frat-boy businessman in Men, is here a blond, impotent cuckold. The women, in their own ways, are no better: Show-stealer Catherine Keener is a nasty, spiteful ball-breaker, Amy Brenneman plays a very uptight adulteress and Nastassja Kinski is an omnivorous sexual predator. Unlike the male characters in the first film, all six are likable in one way or the other, giving the movie a less icy feeling.

As to whether the film is a portrait of a social class, as Company of Men seemed to be, LaBute is typically coy. "I think it's dangerous to be the voice of too much," he says. "I really see it as just those six people." And then, maddeningly: "But they're also types." He says he intentionally wrote the script without giving the characters' names away until the credits roll so the movie would feel both cold and archetypal.

LaBute says he saw Company of Men as a kind of Rorschach test for viewers' attitudes toward sex and gender. (He jokes that men viewed the film as science fiction, while women saw it as a documentary.) "I didn't want there to be some kind of black-and-white answer. I have a Beckett-like attitude: 'How would I know?' " He's no different with Your Friends and Neighbors. "I'm interested in what you think," he says. "I raise the questions.... Do you want me to rant for 90 minutes about how I feel?"

He'll reveal this much: that the film's title, intended to echo '50s ad slogans aimed at housewives, is meant to ring with a slightly indicting quality. "It says, don't kid yourself. It also had the quality I liked in the Restoration comedies -- gently scolding people while making them laugh: 'And I mean you. I know you think I just mean the people around you. But I'm wagging my finger at you, too.' "

Whatever the new film does or doesn't mean, it's already something close to notorious among those who've appointed themselves to represent "the parents of America": the Motion Picture Association of America. The movie is one of the first in history to receive an NC-17 rating despite an absence of nudity or violence -- only one bared nipple and not so much as a slap to the face.

The film was eventually reshot and given an R rating by the MPAA. The sticking point was a scene in which the Jason Patric character coolly recounts -- with no cutting away for reaction shots or to ease the tension -- sodomizing a teenage boy. The studio was ready to release the film unrated if the only other alternative was to cut the scene. "That monologue was one of those things I didn't want to touch," says LaBute, who calls it "just a crystalline, great piece of acting -- four minutes, no tricks, of an actor connecting with material."

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