'Your Friends' appear to be emotional pigs

August 28, 1998|By Henry Sheehan | Henry Sheehan,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

In his first feature film, "In the Company of Men," writer-director Neil LaBute used two young corporate employees' pursuit and sexual humiliation of a secretary to portray relations between the sexes as a cruel male power trip.

In his new film, "Your Friends & Neighbors," LaBute still hews to his vision of men as brutes. Only now he has expanded it; the women are emotional pigs, too. The movie follows the infidelities of three friends from college, now affluent professionals, and their current lovers.

A harsh view of the war of the sexes that draws self-consciously upon the savage tradition of Restoration comedy, the movie fails largely on the issue of humor. LaBute obviously means to coat his worm's-eye assessment of humanity with a saving patina of laughs, but his scenes so relentlessly turn toward the curdled and mean that the humor can't blossom.

For example, LaBute sets one heated lovers' quarrel in the aisles of a chain drugstore. The lovers in question are two women, Terri (Catherine Keener) and Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) who met at Cheri's art gallery just as Terri was getting restless over her relationship with live-in lover Jerry (Ben Stiller).

So, we have the funny -- in that they rhyme -- names, a joke derived from Restoration comedy -- plus, there's the peculiarly modern trick of setting an intimate argument within a public setting, and a banal one at that. Yet, as the women argue in front of fellow shoppers, the result isn't comedy so much as melancholy.

It's not that LaBute isn't entitled to his sour view, or even that it's incorrect. One of the relationships rings very true: Barry (Aaron .. Eckhart), a young executive, is somehow failing his emotionally unfulfilled wife Mary (Amy Brenneman). And since that failure makes Mary open to Jerry's sexual overtures, and those overtures are made while he and Terri are visiting as a couple, the movie actually starts out with considerable promise.

But having pointed out that, when it comes to sex, men and women often double-deal -- hence act ignorantly against their own ultimate interests -- LaBute can't seem to move on.

Over and over, he restates his opening proposition. This leads him to extremes, particularly when it comes to Cary (Jason Patric), a character whose compulsions leave him just barely on this side of psychosis.

Purely as a filmmaker, LaBute shows some skill, particularly when it comes to handling an ensemble. And if the movie never develops thematically, the shifting relationships provide enough plot material for the movie to expand narratively. But there's a strange sense at the movie's end that you've been left right where you started.

'Your Friends & Neighbors'

Starring Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, Jason Patric, Ben Stiller

Directed by Neil LaBute

Released by Gramercy Pictures

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated R (nudity, sexual activity and frequent and graphic offensive language)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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