Every couple of years, American filmgoers become mysteriously obsessed with a “water-cooler movie,” a picture that ordinary people feel compelled to talk about at endless length, usually around the office water cooler. Though such movies sometimes feature well-known actors and actresses, and may even have been quite expensive to make, the size of the budget is invariably beside the point. Titanic was the most popular movie in history, but nobody talked about it, except to say how great the special effects were. Water-cooler movies, by contrast, are about ideas, not special effects, and the ideas, more often than not, have to do with sex. Thelma and Louise, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal: all these movies inspired an enormous amount of chatter among the non-chattering classes, most of it consisting of hazy discussions of sexual ethics.
In the Company of Men, an independent film written and directed by Neil LaBute and produced on an absurdly small budget, was last summer’s water-cooler movie. Like most such films, it took journalists by surprise, and some of them had to scramble to catch up with the buzz. (One unlucky newsmagazine whose critic dismissed it as uninteresting was forced a few weeks later to run a feature story about the controversy the film had stirred up.) In hindsight, though, it’s clear that In the Company of Men was made to be talked about. The plot had all the bright, oversimplified clarity of a ’90s-style fable—two arrogant yuppie consultants revenge themselves on the opposite sex, which they hold collectively responsible for the woes of the world, by seducing a deaf woman, then dumping her—and the resulting arguments were as predictable as a school lunch, thus allowing everybody to join in the fun.
Still, there was something about In the Company of Men that transcended the banality of its sexual politics and caused even its silliest moments (of which there were many) to lodge firmly in the memory. Much the same thing is true of LaBute’s second film, Your Friends & Neighbors. Despite its bigger budget and slightly larger cast, this brutally frank tale of seduction, adultery, impotence, and homosexuality is all of a piece with In the Company of Men, and like its predecessor, it somehow contrives to embody an unsettling mixture of the grotesquely implausible and the genuinely disturbing.
Set in a suburban college town, Your Friends & Neighbors might just as well have been called “Six Characters in Search of an Orgasm,” since the members of the cast spend the entire film talking about good sex, but never succeed in having any. Barry (Aaron Eckhart, who played the smooth-talking heavy of In the Company of Men) is a Babbitt-like businessman married to Mary (Amy Brenneman, who is letter-perfect), a pretty but lonely journalist. Jerry (Ben Stiller), Barry’s best friend, is a drama professor who lives with Terri (Catherine Keener), a deeply alienated woman who has, in the current cant, problems with intimacy. Both men are sexually dysfunctional—Barry is impotent other than when masturbating, while Jerry is incapable of satisfying Terri—and both blame their inability to perform not on themselves, but their partners. To this end, Jerry attempts to seduce Mary, but turns out to be as sexually incapable as Barry; simultaneously, Terri embarks on an affair with Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a beautiful but not very bright art-gallery receptionist. Not surprisingly, everybody lives unhappily ever after: at film’s end, Terri and Cheri are barely speaking, Barry is totally impotent, Jerry is sleeping with one of his students, and Mary is sleeping with Cary (Jason Patric), a friend of Barry and Jerry who treats women with savage contempt (and who, it turns out, is a not-so-latent homosexual).
Here as in his first film, LaBute has sought in Your Friends & Neighbors to portray a stylized world of heightened aggression. Not only is the film’s atmosphere claustrophobic to a fault—every scene is shot indoors—but the six characters are never referred to by name. (We only learn their cutely interchangeable first names in the closing credits.) The latter device, together with the film’s punch-telegraphing title, hammers home that we are supposedly looking in on the tangled private lives of Everyman and Anywoman, U.S.A. Alas, this tendentious premise is no more believable in Your Friends & Neighbors than it was in In the Company of Men. Film is a naturalistic, even documentary medium, and so it is difficult to take LaBute’s characters at other than face value, no matter how exaggeratedly they go about their dirty business; instead of smiling at his satirical digs, you roll your eyes and say, “I don’t know anybody like that.”
Indeed, you probably don’t know anybody like that, just as you probably didn’t know any businessmen as comprehensively vile as Chad, the antihero of In the Company of Men: He is a feminist fantasy, Andrea Dworkin’s worst nightmare wrapped in red suspenders. The men in Your Friends & Neighbors aren’t much better, and their complete lack of redeeming qualities very quickly starts to cloy. It is revealing that even though LaBute claims to have modeled both films on Restoration comedy—at one point, we actually see Jerry staging a play by Wycherley—neither one is particularly funny. The fact that Barry, Jerry, and Cary all turn out to be sexually maladroit, for example, could easily have been played for brilliantly cruel laughs, but LaBute lacks the courage of his satirical convictions: He has to let us know that he is on the right side.
Yet for all the ideological rigidity of his portrayal of the war between men and women, LaBute occasionally stumbles into some unexpected patches of political incorrectness. His treatment of homosexuality, for instance, is unorthodox in the extreme: the relationship between Terri and Cheri is plainly meant to suggest that lesbianism is not a “normal” condition but an adjustment, one by which sexually victimized women console one another for the brutality of men. (Make way for the pickets!)
More interestingly, the men in Your Friends & Neighbors seem to understand that their behavior is not merely self-destructive, but objectively wrong, perhaps even evil. In one scene, Barry goes so far as to broach the possibility that he and his friends may be punished for their sins, to which Cary curtly replies, “Until then, we’re on my time.” According to his resume, LaBute “worked in the mental health field while attending Brigham Young University”—an interesting pair of credentials for a filmmaker—and so one may take leave to doubt that the irony of Cary’s retort was altogether lost on the man who put it in his mouth.
Not that Your Friends & Neighbors is in any obvious way a religious film; rather, it seems to evoke the closed world of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, in which the father of existentialism famously announced that hell is other people. (Presumably he has since learned otherwise.) Though Barry, Cary, and Jerry may not yet be in hell, they’ve certainly done an impressive job of building a branch office here on earth, and it’s hard not to suspect that in his heart Neil LaBute knows who owns the franchise.