Every so often someone decides it's time to be honest. Writer/director Neil LaBute's first film, In the Company of Men, showed men as heartless and consumed by pride and vindictiveness. His new one, Your Friends & Neighbors, depicts love relationships as hollow, unsatisfying, and driven more by habit than desire.
Your Friends & Neighbors
directed by Neil LaBute
starring Ben Stiller, Jason Patric, Aaron Eckhart
starts Friday at the Neptune
To escape this stagnation, theater professor Ben Stiller makes a half-hearted play for Amy Brenneman, the journalist wife of his best friend, Aaron Eckhart. Stiller's own wife, Catherine Keener, drifts into the arms of art gallery secretary Nastassia Kinski. Hovering over everything is sociopath Jason Patric. Stiller and Eckhart are largely helpless, but Patric—like the character Eckhart played in LaBute's previous film—is a handsome sexual predator whose ruthlessness verges on absurdity. Not one of his scenes goes by in which he doesn't say or do something that paints his vicious misogyny in broad, bold strokes (for example, condoning rape for revenge or haranguing a woman for staining his sheets with her period). The women are drawn with more sympathy, but like the men they're unhappy and incapable of changing their lives for the better.
Much of Your Friends & Neighbors succeeds. While most of the scenes are conversations revolving around questions like "What was the best sex you ever had?", LaBute deftly keeps enough plot in motion that the movie never bogs down. His visual sense is spare but beautiful. The space between the actors' faces and the colors of the furniture in the background describes the characters' emotions as much as their actions or the words they say.
But despite the cleverness of the dialogue and the cutting humor, this brand of honesty would be more compelling if LaBute didn't congratulate himself so much for his unflinching eye. In the Company of Men stirred up a lot of controversy; Your Friends works at trying to have the same kind of impact. Patric's character, in particular, is so self-consciously callous he ceases to seem real. This smugness doesn't ruin the movie, because it's refreshing to escape the gooey sentiment that usually passes for human behavior. But by avoiding any earnest feeling at all, the picture of life created by these smart but unpleasant people ends up incomplete.