No Balls

First-time writer/director Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men is about Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), two thirtyish white-collar executives who have recently been passed up for promotions and rejected by their girlfriends. En route to a six-week business trip at the home office, Chad, the bristlier and wilier of the two, hatches a plan: They'll pick out an unsuspecting woman during their stay and each romance her -- then unceremoniously dump her. This little game is intended to bond Chad and Howard in their pain by doing unto women as women have done unto them.

Have I mentioned that this film was wreathed in glory last year at Sundance? Are you beginning to get the picture? In the Company of Men comes across like it's really about something. LaBute has said that he modeled the film's structure on five-act Restoration comedies in which "wealthy, blase characters do unspeakable things just because they feel like it." Neither Chad nor Howard is wealthy, and both are too out of sorts to be blase, but the intention is clear: Their little game is blood sport.

But LaBute -- who has written plays with titles such as Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, Lepers and Bash -- is a diagrammatic sportsman. His film isn't just a jag about a couple of creeps, it's a metaphor for how the sexes prey upon each other, a stand against the soullessness of modern life. Am I leaving anything out? Even the film's title rocks with import -- those men are Men. LaBute holds his characters in fixed-camera setups that go on for minutes at a stretch; the effect is ponderous, voyeuristic, as though we were eavesdropping on something privileged.

LaBute has clearly been influenced by David Mamet. His film has the same hollow horror and cadenced by-play as Mamet during his most metaphorical moments. But it's Mamet without the rich slanginess and heat. In the Company of Men is Tinkertoy Mamet; the film's clockwork scenario, with each of the six weeks announced on the screen, has an inhuman finesse.

Except to establish that Chad and Howard were college buddies ten years ago, LaBute doesn't fill in the men's lives; they live in a nameless city, and their white-collar jobs are equally undefined. They both seem far too hale to have been passed over for promotion in favor of "younger" men, but LaBute can't resist twanging that particular Willy Loman heartstring. The truth is, anybody as ruthless as Chad would be having a high old time in the corporate culture.

Chad's prey turns out to be a deaf woman in the office typing pool. Christine (Stacy Edwards, in a fine, understated performance) is beautiful and shy, and when she allows herself to speak, her voice has a sad, beseeching quality. She's independent yet vulnerable -- a victim heroine.

Of course, from the moment you see her it's clear what will develop: Howard, who gets pulled into Chad's game without really weighing its emotional baggage, falls for Christine. He begins to pull away from Chad's heartlessness. But wouldn't he already have some indication of Chad's capabilities after ten

years of friendship? Didn't it occur to either guy that by both "romancing" Christine they, too, were headed for a fall? The rivalry that develops between Chad and Howard seems a given -- to us, at least. LaBute keeps them blinkered because otherwise he couldn't work up his big, fancy, phony final act.

There's another aspect to the men's relationship that LaBute keeps under wraps. Chad is such a woman-hater that you suspect he's working off something more than just a girlfriend who rejected him. In a particularly unbelievable scene, he calls a black underling into his office and questions whether the guy has the "balls" to be executive material -- whereupon he gets him to drop his pants and show off his balls. We're supposed to recognize from this that Chad is an equal-opportunity sadist; he doesn't just hate women, he hates everybody. But there's a homoerotic aspect to what he's doing too, just as there is in his Christine-sharing with Howard. Chad can be a charmer, but he's meant to be charming in the way Iago was charming. Except, of course, Shakespeare's dialogue was a bit better.

LaBute must have worried his film would be tagged as simplistically pro-feminist, so by introducing Chad in all his freeform loathsomeness, he threw in the kitchen sink. But what you take away from In the Company of Men is still its male-female dynamic. The notion that these guys would cold-bloodedly seek payback is a nicely startling premise for a psychological horror film. But LaBute doesn't allow for emotional nuance -- Chad is never drawn into any tenderness, and Christine is a dewy-fresh innocent, as though being deaf also means being dumb.

If someone such as the Bertrand Blier of the '70s had directed In the Company of Men, he would have dug deeply into its messiness and crazy-making black comedy. Blier brought out the shock and lyricism of sexual combat, and he did so by uncensoring his masculine fantasies. LaBute, for all his "daring," is playing a much safer game. He's a scourge on the side of the angels. That's why he makes Christine such a hapless waif. He's the protector of maidens wreaking his own version of payback against the Chads and Howards of the world. It's a self-serving display.

In the Company of Men.
Directed by Neil LaBute. With Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy and Michael Martin.

Rated R.
93 minutes.


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