Love Conflicts -- Nailing Neil

Even in his grad-student days, playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute got a charge out of stirring up audiences nearly to the point of physical violence.

Take the 1991 run of Filthy Talk for Troubled Times at a makeshift theater in New York City, where the young writer was then studying at NYU. In the play, five straight men sit in a bar, talking babes and sex, when one launches into a long homophobic screed. His basic message: that HIV-infected gays got what they deserved. Enraged at such sentiments, a man in the audience jumped up and screamed, "Kill the playwright!"

Tension rippled through the theater, packed with Upper Westside yuppies. LaBute, who was on stage as an actor, had the perverse urge to incite things even more. "I had that feeling of wanting to say, 'Let's find him and get him! Let's get our torches and go downstairs -- I think I saw him around here somewhere!' "

Fortunately for LaBute -- who went on to write and direct last year's acidic film In the Company of Men -- the audience failed to act on the angry man's murderous demand. The play continued without incident, its author tingling with excitement.

"I had some theater history behind me, so I thought of the riots in Paris," he says, referring to the clashes between the romantics and neo-classicists in Victor Hugo's day. "It was an exhilarating moment, in a way -- somebody daring, as an audience member, to cross that aesthetic distance.... I tend to seek out plays, as an audience member as well [as a writer], that challenge sensibilities. But I can't remember a play where there was that kind of direct feedback."

Direct feedback is something LaBute, 35, gets a lot of. And much of it isn't exactly warm and fuzzy.

In The Company of Men, for example, prompted outbursts from a number of women angered by its frank depiction of male cruelty, sexism and corporate nastiness. The movie, modeled on David Mamet's plays and on Restoration comedies in which heartless courtesans toy with the common folk, follows two businessmen who woo the same woman -- a deaf secretary -- with the intention of dumping her simultaneously, just for the fun of it. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men," says Chad, the viler of the movie's male leads. The movie offered neither a happy resolution nor "justice" for Chad's evil deeds.

At the film's Sundance debut, an audience already on edge over the uncomfortable ending threw its first question at the writer/director: Why is the movie's victim a deaf woman? "And I just kinda offhandedly said, 'Because I always thought deaf people were funny,' " recalls LaBute, who, of course, instantly acquired a rep for insensitivity. "For a long time, that [insensitive] label stuck -- the film's still called misogynist."

On the way out of the screening, a woman walked up to Aaron Eckhart, who played the film's charismatically malevolent lead, and said, "I hate you." When he replied that she hated Chad, his character, not him, she spat back: "No, I hate you." Subsequent screenings were no less combative. A woman slugged publicist Steve Beeman after seeing the movie in New York. "I was just standing outside [the theater], just gauging opinions, and she took one look at me and gave me a solid shot to the chest and kept walking," Beeman recounts. At a screening at West L.A.'s Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion, a woman shouted at the Eckhart character on screen: "I feel like cutting your cojones off!"

Though In the Company of Men landed on many critics' best-of-the-year lists, some in the press reacted as violently as did screening audiences. Armond White, writing in the New York Press, dubbed the film "a fallacy of yuppie cool for the Angelika crowd," while Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times called it the psychological equivalent of a snuff film. The movie even sparked an on-air tiff between Siskel and Ebert as to whether men really do this kind of thing to women. But Jack Mathews of Newsday had the most damning judgment: "You walk away from it feeling as if you've witnessed a rape that you'd done nothing to stop."

It's hard to imagine LaBute, a rumpled, chubby guy with a wife and two kids who recently retired from teaching drama at two small Indiana colleges, existing in the world he's created on screen. With his thick glasses, untucked shirts, and R. Crumb-like beard, he comes across more like a good-natured college teaching assistant than a sexual bomb-thrower.

On top of it all, he's a Mormon.
Though LaBute is often asked what he's so angry about, his most distinguishing quality in person is his sense of humor: In conversation he's unguarded, given to rambling, funny anecdotes, and nearly always wryly and gently ironic. The references that come most naturally to him are literary or dramatic; in explaining his fondness for Steven Soderbergh's romantic thriller Out of Sight, for instance, LaBute mentions Poe's theory of the short story.  

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."

LaBute and Patric worked hard to make the sequence one that people would remember long after they'd left the theater, much as people still recall the scene from Men in which a black officeworker is asked to drop his pants. "Jason and I raced down to the New Beverly [Cinema] to see In Cold Blood," to time a monologue near the film's end where the convicted killer addresses his executioners, says the director. "I remember Jason putting on a stop watch to see how long it was before they cut away."

Trying to shoot and edit Patric's dryly sadistic speech for its eventual television appearance was nearly impossible, recalls LaBute. "We tried to find as many variations on the word 'fuck' as we could -- we went through the whole Sinatra lexicon, of 'fetch,' and 'frig,' and 'flip' and 'fly.' Jason said, 'We can't even get this into the theaters, what are we worried about TV for?' "

Nonetheless, LaBute admits he's pleased that his film could draw the wrath of the MPAA. "I really appreciate the power of what words can do. When I got the NC-17, I said, 'Wow, after all that film can do, words can still unnerve people so that someone under a certain age can't see it.' "

But, he adds, he was glad his movie ended up with an R instead of the dreaded NC-17. "One doesn't want to be just notorious," he says. "There are much better ways to be seen and heard.

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