Strictly Business


I was prepared to feel a swell of sick outrage in the wake of Neil LaBute's debut feature, In the Company of Men, which features a by-now-notorious pair of white-collar misogynists at its ice-cold heart. And since their tender prey is a deaf woman, a friend with a soft spot for such people promised that he'd get worked up over it, too. When the screening was over, however, the prevailing mood was more tepid than tormented--although we did feel a little callous for not finding ample food for thought about our own workplace nightmares.

Our lack of enthusiasm may have been proportional to the initial charge we got from the film's all-important buzz. Thanks to market research, film-festival fever, and the media's ardent servicing of the movie industry, most cinematic product is so thoroughly exposed, dissected, and hyped before it's served to audiences that they rarely get a chance to return an unexpected thumbs-up or -down. Then there are the films, like In the Company of Men, that are all-too-expectedly "controversial." (Ever notice how sleepers are a thing of the past?)

Only this spring did a table-turning scenario begin to take shape on the film scene, as studio honchos "suddenly" realized that the coming plague of summer movies threatened to wipe out audiences from sheer exhaustion. (Of course, this developing trend was reported well before any of the blockbusters had actually opened.) Meanwhile, In the Company of Men and other cultivated Sundance fare--Ulee's Gold, Love Serenade, Shall We Dance?--are to be regarded as fresh breezes amid all of Hollywood's hot air. As in the music biz, however, the glow around the indie-film phenomenon has faded. Notwithstanding the prominence of so-called "indies" at the Oscars last March (a portentous sign, perhaps), a film's relative smallness is no longer a guarantee of goodness. Indeed, the sidebar to the story of Hollywood bloat is the glut of low-budget pictures, few of which are worthy of Oscars, or even much attention.

Not that viewers are mere pawns in all this. A recent New York Times feature reported that "movies have become our real national pastime" (this is news?), but neglected to consider the deeper implications of a public engaged so persistently with celluloid stories. Movie-star crushes are one thing (hello, John Cusack!), but it's disturbing to read about Contact serving as someone's spiritual epiphany, or to see critics expressing a collective wish for Air Force One's Harrison Ford to be our real president. (Yeah, and we wanted Reagan for our real-life daddy, too.) Just as Contact was supposed to be the summer's big-budget "intellectual" film, In the Company of Men (made for $25,000) was set up to be the bitter medicine we didn't know we needed, another shocking dispatch to jolt us out of... what?

All of this is a long way of saying that, in my book, the deck was stacked against In the Company of Men's ability to be a stunner; and even on its own, the film doesn't have much of a hand. As it opens (skip to next paragraph if you know the oft-recounted plot), Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), the aforementioned dastardly duo, are traveling to an unnamed city to conduct a six-week project at the branch office of their unnamed company. When each reveals that he's been recently dumped by his girlfriend, Chad hits on an extracurricular activity for them: They'll seduce a woman, "a wallflower type," and then unceremoniously give her the boot at the same time that they wrap up business.

The plot is simple enough, but certain of its points are too implausible to ignore. If the bad guys are aiming to give women in general a little "payback," as Chad says, then why screw over just one? He regards their undertaking as "virgin territory," musing that "no matter what happens, we can always say, 'Yeah fine, but they never got me like we got her.'" The "they" he's referring to are his fellow corporate droogs--who, in Chad's paranoid view, will tear off your ass if given a second to do so. Apparently, romance is no different. So why not pick on someone their own size, so to speak? Surely, Chad is shrewd enough to know that, while his WASPy, aging frat-boy looks might help him bag a babe with her choice of dates, Howard is an unqualified nerd. Perhaps Chad has got more in mind than just a twisted male-bonding experience.

Within this setup, Christine (Stacy Edwards), the deaf word-processor the men home in on, practically has "Vulnerable" stamped on her forehead. Indeed, as LaBute follows suit with his guy characters by playing Christine for an insubstantial toss-off, Edwards is not really required to act--just to look sweetly flattered (and rather composed) throughout her sudden dual-courtship. Come break-up time, she curls up and sobs on a bed. Filming that scene's final shot from above, LaBute may think he's being Kubrickian--in an Entertainment Weekly interview, he professed admiration for that filmmaker's "clinician" approach--but, as there's been little build-up, there's no payoff. From beginning to bitter end, this devilish double-romance has been more soap opera than emotional horror show, and by the time Chad reveals his true intentions, LaBute has made it abundantly clear that he's got zilch in his moral bank account.

So what's to shock here? Sure, the men make sexist jokes and throw their heads back to bare their fangs, laughing obnoxiously. But, having heard how relentlessly evil these guys were supposed to be, my expectations simply weren't met. Or maybe it was the film's cold style that numbed me to its content. LaBute gives In the Company of Men a rigorously banal yet ominous (and obvious?) look, his images of the workplace cut up by slices of shadows cast from window blinds. The office setting is under construction--suggesting a battlefield that's far from the civilized quarters of the mother corporation--and the camera dispassionately pans across yellow "caution" tape strung up everywhere. In one scene, workers line up to use an unseen Xerox machine as if they're lambs to the slaughter.

With Chad's perverse romance amounting to a mere subplot in his larger, Machiavellian plan for career advancement, the movie does make a larger statement about the pervasive, dehumanizing forces of the corporate environment upon worker-bees. But it could have shown this--and still dealt with sexism's sticky role in the equation--without the seduction-of-the-wallflower story.

People have gone all queasy for In the Company of Men, but only in relation to the raft of other product currently doing battle at the box office. No wonder the film's ads quote the Times' Janet Maslin, who deems it "the show stopper of the moment!" (Italics mine.) Amid this gadfly hyperbole, it's easy to forget about such truly sickening movies as Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange--or, more recently, Mike Leigh's Naked and Tom Noonan's The Wife. Chalk up In the Company of Men's "buzz" to successful counterprogramming in a summer of popcorn movies.

In the Company of Men starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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