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Review: With 'Friends and Neighbors' like this, who needs enemies?

Web posted on: Wednesday, September 09, 1998 12:07:58 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- When I was in high school, there was this one guy (let's call him The Ape) who had what could politely be called a limited view of humanity. He was about 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, and had biceps that were fast on their way to outgrowing your average Butterball turkey. Just the look in his eyes told you to steer clear of him, but that didn't mean that he couldn't do you a great deal of harm the minute he got the urge.

You see, The Ape had a bad habit of randomly selecting a victim while everybody was changing classes, nonchalantly walking over, and belting them repeatedly in the side of the head. He got hauled to detention for it constantly, but as soon as he was back in the rotation he'd hang out in the gym -- or a different hallway -- and do it all over again. Being The Funny Guy, I was usually able to make him laugh if he decided to grunt in my direction, so one day I very cautiously asked The Ape why he kept doing this? His response: "I hate people."

Oh. Okay.

I only bring this up because I couldn't help thinking of The Ape while watching Neil LaBute's latest venomous upchuck, a supposed sexual black comedy called "Your Friends and Neighbors."

Deserving of dismissal

I often find myself envying certain magazine movie reviewers who have the opportunity to dismiss particularly simpleminded films in a brief paragraph and then move on to something with some inherent value.

Unfortunately, I can't do that. "Your Friends and Neighbors" would be a prime candidate for this treatment, mainly because the entire thing, from beginning to end, can be boiled down into a three word sentence: "I hate people." The Ape (far-reaching seeker of the truth that he was) may very well have the movie's poster hanging above his bed as I write this. That is, if they let him decorate his cell.

LaBute made something of a name for himself last year with his equally ugly first film, "In the Company of Men." The plot of that masterwork dealt with a couple of business-world jerks who decide to make sport out of seducing, then cruelly abandoning, a lonely, tender-hearted deaf woman who works in their office.

LaBute's horizons have greatly expanded since then, however. "Your Friends and Neighbors" features a virtual tag-team of upper middle-class sexual terrorists, nearly all of whom treat intimacy as a golden opportunity to wallow in mean-spirited selfishness, then brag about it to their buddies later.

Clip: "I don't really want to chat"

Video clip: 1.6Mb QuickTime

Entire theatrical trailer

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Repugnant characters

LaBute's tremendous growth as a writer is readily evident, in that he now features females who are just as repugnant as the men who are banging them. It's like watching the Woody Allen movie "Manhattan," except that all the main characters would rather dispense with talking about art and politics, and get right down to raping someone. Then they could go to Elaine's and chuckle about it over some cognac.

"Your Friends and Neighbors" is so obvious and proudly malicious, I can't decide if LaBute is in dire need of some therapy or if he's just plain old shallow. Actually, it's probably a combination of the two, emphasis on the therapy angle.

Ben Stiller, Jason Patric (who co-produced), and Aaron Eckhart are three friends who like to get together and grouse about how much they hate women, or love hating them, or hate loving them.

Love is really the furthest thing from anybody's mind, though. The guys' wives and/or partners in sex are played by Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, and Nastassja Kinski. Keener hates it if Stiller talks too much while he's having (thoroughly joyless) sex with her. Brenneman tries to have an affair with Stiller, while remaining on very friendly with terms with Keener. Kinski meets Keener at an art gallery and sleeps with her. Eckhart, who's married to Brenneman and is very close to Stiller, admits that he gets the most satisfaction out of masturbation (we get to see him service himself under the sheets after his unsatisfied wife falls to sleep next to him). And then there's Patric's happy-go-lucky character.

Embarrassingly violent

One of the key moments in the movie comes when Patric, as an unbelievably angry, repulsive womanizer, delivers a lengthy soliloquy about the greatest sex he ever had. No, it wasn't with some hot number he picked up in a bar somewhere, or some secretary at the office. His golden moment came in high school when he and several friends took revenge on a kid they didn't like by holding him down in the shower and raping him.

Patric almost gets misty-eyed over the glory of it all, the joy of forcing it on someone while expecting absolutely nothing in return. Later, we also get to see Patric screaming at a young woman and throwing her out of his apartment because she dared to menstruate on his expensive bedding. Staggeringly insightful, isn't it?

The actors (especially Brenneman) are all quite good, but I'm embarrassed to think that they might view this as complex screenwriting.

Some of you may remember a traveling group of immaculately groomed singers in the early '70s who toured auditoriums with a show called "Up With People." They'd march out on stage in their matching V-neck sweaters, button-downs, and slacks, grin maniacal grins, and sing alarmingly upbeat songs about the sticky-sweet soda pop river of goodness known as the human experience. It was so single-mindedly joyful it gave you the creeps.

Well, what LaBute is doing here is every bit as willfully unseeing as that, just as worthy of receiving nothing more than a bemused snicker. LaBute perceives the scope of the world we live in in simple black and white, but doesn't bother to deal with the white part. His world, in other words, is black. Nothing short of sex with themselves could satisfy these morons.

There's a very simple way of suggesting that particular activity to someone, but (due to its profane nature) I'll refrain from writing it on this Web site. I really think LaBute should give it a go, though.

It's pretty obvious that you don't need to be dragging the kids to see this one. Lots of profanity and sex. Almost all of the talk is about sex or a lack thereof. Don't come looking for nuance, whatever you do. Calling this "Your Friends and Neighbors" is like making a movie where everyone sits around eating plates of rancid gristle and titling it "Your Favorite Steakhouse." Rated R. 99 minutes.

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