Your Friends & Neighbors

“Your Friends & Neighbors,” Neil LaBute’s follow-up to his stunning Sundance film Fest debut, “In the Company of Men” (1997), continues his darkly comic exploration of misogyny as it defines the relationships of endlessly loquacious urbanites.

This contemporary (im)morality tale suffers from the relentless misogyny and unpleasantness of its male characters and the static quality of the staging which approximate a theatrical mode, lacking narrative momentum or dramatic excitement.

As he showed in his first film, LaBute has penchant for sharp dialogue and deft characterization but is less concerned with plot mechanics and visual mise-en-scene. In his universe, biting words, not actions, are the ultimate weapons. Source of inspiration for LaBute’s work continue to be David Mamet; here, the play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Like Mamet’s, LaBute’s approach is precise and detached. In his direction, he also follows Mamet, placing his characters close to the camera without much depth of field.

Though doubling his ensemble to a sextet, thematically, Your Friends & Neighbors is as narrowly focused as In the Company of Men, except here the battlefield is the bedroom rather than the boardroom. The power games played by the characters in the new movie are motivated by sexual politics. In its cynically bitter tone, Your Friends & Neighbors bears thematic resemblance to Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. LaBute’s modern males recall the misogynist, impotent men played by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel in the 1971 picture.

In the pre-credit sequence, a handsome man named Cary (Jason Patric), sweaty from exercise, says dramatically, “I think you’re a great lay.” It turns out Cary is talking to his tape recorder, rehearsing lines that in no time will be used with a variety of desirable women.

LaBute’s incisive perspective is evident in the very first sequence, a montage of couples in bed. The married Jerry (Ben Stiller) and Terri (Catherine Keener) are making love, but Terri is tired of his endless talk–“I don’t need the narration,” she angrily tells him, “this is not a travelogue.”

Cut to another married couple, Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), who experience sexual problems, as Barry later confides, “The best lay I ever had is myself. My wife is great, but she is not me.”

Jerry, a theater instructor, seems the most balanced of the men, but appearances deceive. When Jerry initiates an extramarital affair with Mary, he sets in motion a chain of events that affect all the other characters. The narrative centers on the intricate maneuvers of upscale urbanites: deceit and betrayal of love and friendship. In due course, Terri falls for another woman, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), who works in an art gallery, and in a senseless, incoherent ending, Mary finds herself in Cary’s arms.

Schematically constructed to represent a cross-section of urban society, the characters are divided into an equal number of males and females. Of the women, one is a masochist, another is a married bisexual, and a third is lesbian. The men too are archetypes: Jerry is an adulterer who keeps secrets because he’s never honest with himself, Barry epitomizes the inadequacies of a man who’s lost control of his life, and Carry is the sexually potent male for whom women are toys to be played with.

Some of the interactions are sharply observed with dark humor, but sheer cynicism wins out, giving the impression that LaBute set out to shock his viewers. The whole film is overly studied and calculated, including the symmetrical overture and finale. It begins with a series of bedroom scenes and ends with a series of mirrored bedroom scenes. LaBute goes for emotionally distancing effects, as is evident in a repetitive cycle of gallery scenes wherein all the characters engage in identical introductory dialogue. Unfolding as a series of theatrical tableaux, the film lacks dramatic rhythm.

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