Neil Labute is obviously a disciple of Gustave Flaubert. ”Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert counseled, ”so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (The creator of Madame Bovary also declared, ”One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he cannot be a soldier,” but that’s for another review.) How else to explain how 35-year-old LaBute — Mormon citizen of Indiana, married father of two — has so quickly and utterly become identified as a specialist in dramatizing the kind of breathtaking sexual savagery and psychological violence sophisticated men and women are capable of wreaking on each other?
In LaBute’s landscape, men don’t just passive-aggressively drive women to read badly written self-help books; they sin (that old-fashioned thing), and are deserving of punishment that may or may not be meted out in this lifetime. In his first feature, 1997’s In the Company of Men, the writer-director created anti-PC yuppies who plot to humiliate a woman in futile revenge for all the ways they themselves feel puny and threatened, and the director moved his antiheroes so serenely through scenes of such all-American blandness that the sheer evil amorality of their plan was thrilling. In Your Friends and Neighbors, on the other hand, men aren’t alone in their transgressions; women are equally capable of cruelty, deceit, and coldness.
In this bleak, scathing, and utterly compelling roundelay, a sextet of urban moderns — all no doubt subscribe to The New Yorker and Metropolitan Home — turns sex into warfare. Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener play a couple who copulate unsatisfactorily because, she says, he talks too much during the act. ”F—ing is f—ing. It’s not a time for sharing,” she snaps, with the kind of explosive declamatory precision that lands LaBute’s dialogue like smart bombs. Aaron Eckhart and Amy Brenneman are marrieds furnishing the perfect home while masking a seriously imperfect sex life. ”We have to treat each other like meat,” he says, pathetically mouthing sex-doc-style advice. (Eckhart, so coldly handsome in In the Company of Men, packed on pounds, submitted to a sad-ass haircut, and added a smeary mustache for his role as an emasculated cuckold.) Nastassja Kinski wafts through as an art-gallery assistant out of her depth. But it’s Jason Patric who holds center screen as an icy lothario who treats women — and his male friends — with furious contempt. His brutal motto: ”If there ends up being a God or … that whole eternity thing … we’ll see. But until then, we’re on my time.”
Your Friends and Neighbors doesn’t unspool with the compelling momentum of In the Company of Men; the weaving these six do on their way to profound unhappiness — cheating, lying, partner swapping — is circular, closed. Once again, the director sets himself the formal challenge of staging scenes in generic interiors that reflect internal psychic hell (living room, supermarket, restaurant, steam bath where Patric lets loose a virtuoso psychosis-revealing monologue sure to end up in actors’ audition handbooks). Only this time the results teeter toward claustrophobia.
But the rigor of LaBute’s argument (and, by gum, he’s out to start fights, even if he’s got to shout obscenities in your face to provoke ’em), the strength of the uniformly honest acting, and the bravado of the script once again carry his work way ahead of any other American indie-bred, relationship-drama-oriented filmmaker out of Sundance today. His compositional sense is disquietingly beautiful, from the steam-room scene (it starts out wide, inviting as a Hockney painting, then pulls closer and closer on Patric’s chiseled face until we’re practically seeing shmutz ooze out of his pores) to the painterly shots of twos and threes gathered together. And his details are exquisite: Stiller plays a college drama coach who at one point stages a drama by Restoration playwright William Wycherley — known for his bawdy, cynical comedies of manners.
Which is as good a definition of LaBute’s art as any. This is what hell is like, he suggests, among your friends and neighbors. It ain’t pretty, as Flaubert might have said; you might even say (as connoisseurs did on Seinfeld, while gazing at a portrait of Kramer), ”He is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can’t look away.” LaBute dares you to look away, then makes it impossible to do anything other than squirm, transfixed. A-