When He Was Cruel

Two women, dressed in standard waitstaff uniforms, emerge from the bar and into the well-appointed lobby of the hotel built 90 years ago by beer magnate Adolphus Busch, who tried to bring the Jazz Age to what would become a Muzak town. About 50 feet away, an interviewer and his subject--a large man with a curly expanse of hair, a scruffy beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a pale green long-sleeved pullover and dark warm-up pants--are about to begin their conversation. The server with darker hair says to the one with lighter hair, "They're doing an interview over there." She speaks loud enough that the two men can overhear her.

"Who with?" asks the other, in a tone that suggests she wants an immediate answer. The interviewer responds that the man sitting to his left is Neil LaBute, director of In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty, Possession and the brand-new The Shape of Things.

"Nurse Betty I've heard of," says one woman to the other, as they disappear back into the bar, satisfied with the answer but not entirely impressed by it, either.

"Yeah," the playwright-filmmaker says softly but not bitterly. "They've heard of the one with the girl," by which he means Renée Zellweger, who played a traumatized waitress who believed Greg Kinnear was a soap-opera doctor and not merely an actor playing a part. Nurse Betty, released in 2000, was not LaBute's most profitable film--that would be his 1997 debut In the Company of Men, which cost $25,000 and made almost $3 mil--but his most popular, because it felt like a comedy and left audiences smiling as they headed for the exits. Usually, LaBute's films will punch you in the gut and knock you to the ground and spit on your crumpled heap. They are movies so dark you can't see the writer-director's hand in front of your face till it's socking you in the nose. The multiplex ma-and-pa audience doesn't much go for what LaBute's got; the only thing they want dark when they go to the movies is the theater.

But for a particular audience--the masochistic, the misanthropic, the moviegoer who likes to wash down the arsenic with a shot of Drano--LaBute's morality tales provide a particular brand of catharsis. (This does not include Nurse Betty, which he did not write, and last year's adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel Possession, with Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow stalking Victorian lovers through ancient love letters.) His films overflow with the very worst people imaginable doing the very worst things to each other; they lie to each other, cheat on each other, manipulate each other, screw with and screw over each other until all that's left are corpses devastated by the bomb blasts of human behavior.

In his debut, In the Company of Men, two businessmen (LaBute regular Eckhart and Matt Malloy) exact their revenge on an entire gender by toying with a beautiful and kind deaf woman. Eckhart's Chad is defined by what he tells Malloy's Howard: Inside, women are "all the same--meat and gristle and hatred just simmering." A year later, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric and Eckhart were the kind of Friends & Neighbors who hate-fucked each other till they became but stains on a sheet. The film's most horrific moment would occur when Patric, drenched in sauna-sweat, bragged to Stiller and Eckhart about the time he raped a boy in high school. Every time you laughed at those movies you also could taste a little vomit in the back of your throat.

It's the same response elicited by LaBute's 2001 play-turned-film The Shape of Things, in which art student Evelyn (About a Boy's Rachel Weisz) gives frumpy collegian Adam (Clueless' Paul Rudd) a makeover of epic proportions, simply using the power of suggestion. She gets him to lose weight, eat better, fix his hair, lose his dowdy jacket, even go in for plastic surgery. But her improvements are not for reasons altogether altruistic, as Adam and his friends discover by film's end. So hideous, but not entirely unexpected, is LaBute's twist you might leave the theater feeling in need of a Silkwood shower.

LaBute, the 40-year-old Detroit-born Brigham Young grad who is this close to getting his ass excommunicated from the Mormon Church, resists the theory that his characters are grotesqueries and that the situations in which he places them are hyperbole. He does not agree when the theory is put before him that the three films he's written and directed lay bare the worst aspects of humanity in order to draw out the best in his audience, which may recognize and want to exorcise bits and pieces of themselves revealed on screen.

"I think you're totally off," he says, kidding but not really through a barely perceptible grin. "No, I do think [my work] does try to walk a line, because I don't want it to be like science fiction, that you look at everybody and go, 'I don't recognize anything as human behavior.' But there's always, like, a ringer; there's a guy out there who you think, 'This is so beyond anything. I may think this, but I'm never going to say this out loud.' It's always somewhere safely in the middle where I look. I look at a person like Adam or Howard in In the Company of Men or Ben Stiller's character...and they're much closer to the center of who I think we are, and they're the guys who are actually a little more responsible. The outlandish characters, you kind of go, they're kind of interesting and crazy, but it's the guy who thinks he has a kind of moral superiority and yet continues to make these kind of horrible choices in his life that I'm more interested in."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky