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Fighting over ''In the Company of Men''

The film is this summer’s most controversial and infuriatingly provocative indie film

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Eight months ago first-time filmmaker Neil LaBute got the call that changed his life. He’d written and directed In the Company of Men, a dour tale of brutally misogynistic white-collar types, on a $25,000 shooting budget. He’d submitted a crude, black-and-white videotape rough cut to the Sundance Film Festival. To his shock, it had been accepted. Immediately, LaBute phoned his cameraman, Tony Hettinger, who was in a supermarket buying a toilet brush when he answered his cellular. ”He was yelling ‘Omigod, omigod!”’ recalls LaBute. ”People around him in the store were saying ‘Hey, it’s just a brush.”’

But the brush was exactly what LaBute and crew felt they were getting once they reached that much bigger supermarket, the Sundance festival itself, where their movie promptly began dividing audiences into loved-it and loathed-it camps. And why wouldn’t it? The shockingly nasty plot follows a high-stakes game of abusive sexual conquest, in which an angry mid-level corporate type (Aaron Eckhart) ropes his colleague (Matt Malloy) into a plan to woo, pretend to compete for, then cruelly dump a deaf secretary (Stacy Edwards) — has ”payback” for the wrongs of all women.

While Sundance audiences generally agreed that LaBute had composed an artfully stark film, accusations of sexism wafted through the thin Utah air. It didn’t help when LaBute opened a press conference by joking, deadpan, that he’d made Men because he ”always thought deaf people were funny.” More controversy is sure to follow. In a summer rife with flavor-of-the-week action blockbusters and a largely disappointing glut of indies, In the Company of Men, now opening around the country, looks to be the one film that promises to fuel watercooler discussions for months to come.

That it’s in theaters at all might be some kind of small, dark miracle, since the debate at Sundance grew serious enough to scare off American distributors. Leading man Eckhart recalls that the film initially received an ”extremely positive” reaction from high-ranking execs at No. 1 indie factory Miramax, but the filmmakers were ”crushed” when chairman Harvey Weinstein passed on it. Privately, LaBute heard that the movie had ”disgusted” more than one studio honcho, and it hardly suggested any ”obvious packaging angles” that would make it easy to market. So, for two more months, LaBute and producer Stephen Pevner continued to shop it. Then, just as Men screened at New York’s New Directors/ New Films series in March to an enthusiastic thumbs-up from The New York Times‘ Janet Maslin, Sony Pictures Classics finally struck a deal for U.S. distribution.

”We waited it out,” says LaBute, who was impressed with Sony’s ”passion” about marketing the tricky property. Though Sony hasn’t realized hopes of finding a liquor or cigarette company to help promote the film, whose characters smoke and drink, LaBute says the film company has a ”strong plan” to ”nurse word of mouth” as the way to sell Men. Among Sony’s buzz-raising ploys: screening the film for a mixed audience of high-salaried male Wall Streeters and feminist film fans. Says LaBute: ”[Copresident] Tom Bernard told me with a kind of glee that the more the men laughed, the more you could feel women getting furious. He’s like, ‘I’ll be happy when there are fistfights outside [New York’s] Angelika theater.”’