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Your Friends & Neighbors

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 21 August 1998

  Written and Directed by Neil LaBute

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

"Are you making this up?" someone asks in the midst of this concentrated blast of adultery, deceit and treachery, a highly stylized yet frighteningly authentic new exploration of 1990s mores from the creator of last year's controversial art-house success In the Company of Men. But if Your Friends & Neighbors is more off-putting than writer-director Neil Labute's breakthrough, chalk it up to a more self-consciously theatrical presentation (he does a lot of stage work) as well as a fiercely defiant eroticism that strips intimacy of all tenderness and joy. While providing provocative thrills and plenty of grist for the post-screening conversational mill, one comes away from this accomplished yet distanced work hoping fervently that Labute has indeed made all this up: nobody should be cursed with friends and neighbors like these, he's saying, but how well do we really know those closest to us -- or, for that matter, ourselves?

In an unnamed metropolis over an unspecified time period, six restless characters seem to be in search of self-centered thrills. Obsessed with sexual performance, Cary (co-producer Jason Patric), Barry (In the Company of Men star Aaron Eckhardt) and Jerry (Ben Stiller) have an intimate, improbable but unexplained friendship. Fiercely and aggressively single, Cary is a narcissistic gynecologist who is seen drop-kicking the model fetus in his office and tape-recording his patter while masturbating in preparation for a date. Some sort of mid-level executive who tells a co-worker that he's his own favorite sex partner, Barry is the husband of Mary (Amy Brenneman), a meek mate who can't decide which color polo shirt to wear on any given day (loden or salmon?). Drama teacher Jerry lives with advertising copywriter Terri (Catherine Keener), who is so exasperated with his constant monologue during sex that she begins an affair with artist's assistant Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) -- who, in turn, gives the same rap to each of the film's principal characters as they show up in her gallery.

The plot, such as it is, begins when Jerry propositions Mary in her own living room while Terri is in the kitchen with Barry. At first a willing accomplice, Mary is soon put off by Jerry's unconscious insistence on verbalizing everything, and turns against him when Barry takes her to the same hotel room Jerry chose for their disastrous tryst. Meanwhile, Terri and Cheri also begin to bicker, and Cary confronts Terri during a chance bookstore meeting because he doesn't like the way she treats Jerry.

Do you suppose Labute enjoyed envisioning plot synopses of the film when he named the characters?

Stylistically the film is much bolder than In the Company of Men. Again, music is used sparingly, and thus to great effect. And while Labute continues to favor long, uninterrupted takes with a mostly static camera (better to show off the acting), here he heightens that effect while restricting the action indoors and deliberately muddying the time frame. While In the Company of Men is a logical series of encounters that play out over the course of seven weeks, time and space are fragmented in the new film so that even though events are presented in a specific order one is never sure exactly where this lunch happens in relationship to that encounter, and so on. This only adds to the artifice of the movie and in a way provides relief from the unrelentingly venal behavior of nearly all the characters.

Patric hasn't been this good in a onscreen since Rush, and perhaps never as hypnotically watchable: his mid-movie monologue in a steam-bath recalling his most satisfying sexual encounter is among the most frightening movie moments of the year (he appears to have modeled his character on Rob Lowe at his slimiest). Apparently deliberately padded out from his role in Labute's previous movie, Eckhardt is a bold casting choice for Barry that never fully pans out (the joke was supposed to be that such a physically imposing man could be a milquetoast, but the actor seems to champ at the bit for the kind of in-your-face offensiveness of his craven executive in Men). Deceptively flexible as an actor, Stiller is at once the most accessible and repulsive character in the film; remarkably, he in no way resembles the hapless hero of There's Something About Mary, his surprise summer hit.

Perhaps inevitably, the women are less fully served, with Keener (that's her as George Clooney's ex-wife in Out of Sight) the clear standout in a performance of ruthless self-absorption. Brenneman is fine as the most vulnerable of the group, while Kinski's character is the most underwritten by a good bit and she thus doesn't register with the force of the others.

In a summer of refreshing diversity at the box office, the normally barren days of August have been enhanced by a small handful of pictures that are provocative and memorable. Although at times grueling, Your Friends & Neighbors has the distinction of being unlike anything else in the marketplace at the moment. Yet whether he's making it up or actually has experience with people like these, the sheer viciousness of Labute's sophomore feature -- and his obvious delight at that tone -- is at least as troubling as it is entertaining.

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