There are many ways to make the kill in the cubicle jungles of corporate America. All of them involve power, especially the ones that look like sex. That’s the nasty lesson, more than any gender-war bombshells, of Neil LaBute’s new-to-tape IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (1997, Columbia TriStar, R, $83.99). It’s also the moral of an older white-collar black comedy, Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960, MGM/UA, unrated, $19.98). The differences between the two films, though, are more telling. In the ’90s, it’s often the bosses who need to keep looking over their shoulders.

Jack Lemmon stars in The Apartment as Bud Baxter, a low-level cog at Consolidated Life who lends his bachelor pad out to higher-ups for their extramarital flings. It’s a classic Lemmon role — neurotic, misguided, good-hearted — and we’re meant to approve of his pluck even if we’re aghast at his tactics. It’s the executives to whom Bud lends his keys who are loathsome, above all the chipper, bullying J.D. Sheldrake, who, in an ingenious bit of casting, is played by Fred MacMurray (soon to ride high and bland in TV’s My Three Sons). As much as Bud thinks he’s exploiting his apartment, Sheldrake is clearly exploiting him, and the only thing that saves our hero from becoming equally amoral is his love for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

In the Company of Men gives us no such sweet redemption — that’s why some people hate the film with a passion. In LaBute’s stark, stylized Mametland, any man can wield the knife; here, it’s middle manager Chad (Aaron Eckhart), who with macho camaraderie proposes to his waffly boss, Howard (Matt Malloy), that they both woo and dump a deaf secretary (played with puzzled grace by Stacy Edwards). Chad’s ostensible motive is revenge against duplicitous women, but that’s just a blind — both to Howard and to the legion of media pundits who dutifully churned out thumb-suckers on man’s inhumanity to women. They missed the point: Chad’s intended victim is his boss. Look closely and you’ll see him sizing up Howard’s insecurity about the opposite sex the way a cheetah watches a gimpy antelope.

Love conquers all in The Apartment; in Company of Men, Chad does. That and Malloy’s creepily naked performance as an executive too timid to be moral and too kind to be ruthless may be what make this movie strike unacceptably close to home for male viewers. LaBute takes the subtexts of office politics and rubs them in our face, and it’s an awfully bloody nature documentary. Rent it for your next corporate retreat and watch them run like hell. Apartment: A Men: A-

The Apartment
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes