In the Company of Men (1997): Neil Labute’s Astonishing Feature Directing Debut

Sundance Film Fest 1997–In the Company of Men, Neil Labute’s astonishing feature directorial debut, is a dark, probing, truly disturbing exploration of yuppie angst and male anxieties as they manifest themselves in both the work and personal arenas.

The film is always insightful–and often entertaining–even when the technical aspects of the production don’t match its fluently absorbing dialogue.

Theatrical prospects are excellent for a provocative film that is likely to attract upscale, educated viewers interested in non-mainstream fare.

A dissection of the white male psyche in modern America, In the Company of Men differs from the cycle of yuppie angst films of the mid-1980s, most notably Lost in America and Something Wild. This black comedy is not structured as a road movie, nor does it revolve around a romantic couple in the tradition of screwball comedy. Instead, writer-director Labute centers on the complex psychology–and equally complex relationship–of two thirtysomething white-collar executives: handsome, arrogant Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), his friend from college and now superior at work.

Story begins appropriately enough in the men’s room, when Chad examines Howard’s bruised ear, a product of a fight with his g.f. Touching a deep nerve, Chad ignites Howard by humiliatingly describing him as “a victim of an unprovoked assault,” perpetrated by a woman, a gender he utterly despises. En route to a six-week business trip at a branch office (in an unnamed city), the two men share their frustrations in life–the tough corporate culture, with expectations for promotions that had not materialized, and the equally tough mating game, which has left both men offensively rejected by women.

As a therapeutic measure, Chad proposes an original plan to restore their bruised, insecure egos. They should find an appealing woman, one who’s susceptible enough to be lured and dated by both of them during their stay. The scheme is to dash this woman’s hopes to such an extent that she would lose control and, as Chad says, “suddenly call her mom and start wearing makeup again.” Then, when “business” is over, they’ll go back to civilization, “like nothing happened,” able to laugh about their adventure for years to come.

On his first day at work, Chad spots Christine (Stacy Edwards), a beautiful typist who turns out to be hearing-impaired, though she can speak. Having been out of the mating race for years, Christine is the “ideal” prey, a vulnerable woman to a fault. Christine goes on separate dates with both men, though it’s clear that she’s attracted to Chad. Soon both men begin to show some feelings and even declare love for her.

Turning point occurs when Howard runs into Chad and Christine at a restaurant on the same day she had turned down his offer to have lunch together. What ensues is a suspenseful, mean-spirited cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship that eventually escalates into full psychological warfare. It’s a tribute to Labute’s taut control over the material that it’s not until the very end that the true motivations–and emotions–of each man are revealed.

The film’s greatest achievement is its sharply poignant dialogue that, despite the horrible consequences of the contest it describes, is also darkly amusing. Labute keeps the cynical, often misogynistic banter coming and the scenes punchy, making for a lively, edgy movie in which speech is action. For a while you fear that the script might turn too schematic and misanthropic for its own good, like the futile exercise, Swimming with Sharks, with which it shares a superficial resemblance, specifically in its depiction of office politics and greed.

Nonetheless, with the exception of a few scenes–such as the one in which Chad asks a black intern (Jason Dixie) to take off his underwear and show that he literally has the balls for the
job–the film is always credible and never frivolous. What begins as an adult version of a frat boys prank turns into a lethal power game with unexpected twists and turns.

The visual style of what appears to be an extremely low-budget effort is rather simple: Labute favors frontal, medium-range shots and his camera doesn’t move much. But it doesn’t matter, for the film is not only deftly written, it’s also superbly acted by a trio of talented thesps. In a career-making performance, Eckhart, who physically is a cross between William Hurt and Michael York, aptly embodies a 1990s yuppie: nastily cocky and ruthlessly ambitious. He is ably supported by Malloy, as the less attractive and more sensitive executive, and Edwards, as a woman who’s just a means to an end, a pawn easily captured and then tossed aside in the duel for corporate ascension.

Though only half a dozen movies have been screened in the dramatic competition, Labute registers strongly as a filmmaker to watch, one who writes witty, snappish dialogue that doesn’t sound forced or artificial.