Mr. LaBute's Neighborhood

"Poet of the pathetic white man": Director Neil LaBute (with Ben Stiller) on the set of Your Friends & Neighbors

Los Angeles--
Is it me? Are his words somehow connected to my vagina? Am I being accused of speaking? The spouses and lovers of Your Friends & Neighbors ask each other such questions in this latest battle of the sexes by writer-director Neil LaBute--a film in which, according to the press kit, "words are the ultimate weapons." But at the moment, I'm asking these questions myself, and wondering why, out of a roomful of junket-going journalists packed around a coffee table in a suite at the Four Seasons, this deceptively innocuous-looking filmmaker seems to have trained his weapons on li'l ol' me.

I should explain. A few moments before the Oxford-clad creator of In the Company of Men, um, nailed me, I had called him on his language, observing that he seems to favor violent terms like "smacking" and "bashing" to describe the effect of his films. "Is that what you were thinking of doing to your audience?" I inquire. LaBute demurs. "I don't think it was as calculated as that," he says, "but [as a filmmaker] you want to build to climaxes. It wasn't like, 'We're really gonna let 'em have it, so let's use a 2-by-4,' but you do want some sense of impact." When the conversation turns to Jason Patric's soon-to-be-notorious steamroom monologue detailing a certain sexual conquest, LaBute explains that they filmed the four-minute scene in one continuous shot so as to--yup--"whack you with it." With that, LaBute turns directly to me and says, "That was for you."

Ouch. Considering LaBute's rap sheet as the instigator of last year's assaultive In the Company of Men, his preferred method of making contact with me shouldn't have been surprising. Ever since he began writing plays as an undergrad at Brigham Young University, LaBute, 35, has aimed to hit the spectator where she lives, and Your Friends & Neighbors, an abrasive study of urban predators and their prey, is no exception.

"Originally, I wanted to call it Lepers, but everybody said that title might not reel 'em in from the Calendar section," he remembers. "So I said, 'All right, how about Dead Lepers?'" The furor over his first feature seems to have spurred this unrepentant auteur to new heights. "If it takes being provocative to get a sense of the audience going beyond just sitting there and watching, then it's worth doing," he says.

In that spirit, Your Friends & Neighbors takes up where Men left off--that is, in bed. While "Get to work" is how Men's sexually dominating Chad commanded his girlfriend, Friends opens (and closes) with a rigorous montage of bedroom couplings: Patric's mindfuck machine humping the sheets and practicing come-ons in a sexual dry run; a plump softie (Aaron Eckhart) apologizing to his dissatisfied wife (Amy Brenneman) for his limp performance; and an uncharmed woman (Catherine Keener) objecting to the sex-talk of her mouthy beau (Ben Stiller). The film mixes and matches these five lost souls (plus Nastassja Kinski's comely artist's assistant) as they ruthlessly pursue sexual satisfaction or human connection. But despite such intimate subject matter, LaBute says he sought a "cold and archetypal" effect that would "force the audience to look at the mirror."

And what about the director's sexual (self-) image? Alas, the probing inquiries of a perky TV reporter provoke only playful deflection from LaBute--and he's scarcely more personal in the press kit: "We humans are a fairly barbarous bunch, and I don't think we've changed much over the millennia." Likewise, LaBute defers to Darwin to explain his directorial M.O.: "I sit back and watch as if I were looking at a nature show. In nature documentaries, when the baby seals are killed, the camera doesn't pull back. The filmmaker shows it. That's how I tend to think of my films: This is the way life is."

You can be sure you won't find men and women interacting as friends in Your Friends & Neighbors, since sexual conflict is the sole dynamic between them. But then again, sexual gamesmanship defines all the relationships here, and the women's inability to communicate clearly rivals their male neighbors'. Indeed, Keener's character proves just as cold in a lesbian relationship as she'd been in a straight one. This leads me to suspect that LaBute might agree with novelist Dorothy Sayers, who prefers to think of men or women not as "the opposite sex" but "the neighboring sex." Today, though, LaBute suggests Patric's sadist as a "force of nature." And when Stiller stops by our table to put his two cents in, he describes the film as "an anthropological study of how humans interact and have always interacted."

Still, LaBute acknowledges that Your Friends & Neighbors does reflect the times. "The last 30 years have seen a cycle of difficulty," he says. "The white male had a healthy run for a long time, and that has been changing." So while critics have hailed the director's French New Wave idol Eric Rohmer (Chloe in the Afternoon) as a poet of bourgeois repression, LaBute laughingly offers himself as "the poet of the pathetic white man." But the question remains whether he's satirizing white men's "survival" strategies or lamenting their alleged downfall. In either case, he dissects man-to-man dynamics with scalpel-like humor, exposing the simultaneously erotic and competitive rituals of manhood as practiced in the locker room and the barroom.

If LaBute's latest work continues to offer insight into the company of men, Your Friends & Neighbors also finds him stretching to reach womenfolk--but without fully grasping the female world of love and ritual, which doesn't surprise Catherine Keener. "You write what you know," she observes. "As compassionate as Neil is, he's a man. Can you think of men who write from a woman's perspective?" Still, Keener does believe LaBute offers just what the feminist doctor ordered: a more realistic antidote to Hollywood love stories. "Why is it that so many movies offer this kind of lovable misogyny?" she asks. "Instead, Neil addresses [misogyny] dead-on, without any camouflage." Meanwhile, Eckhart, who earned the animosity of many a filmgoer as the monster of Men, suggests a different moral to the story: "Maybe when you're having sex from behind, you'll think twice."

LaBute directs viewers into yet another position: "You must see something of yourself in these people." As for me, I conclude that my own encounter with the filmmaker bears some resemblance to Your Friends & Neighbors' harrowing bookstore scene, wherein Patric's character breaks down a woman's sharp-tongued defenses with harsh language. In other words, while LaBute's stinging "That was for you" might barely pass for a wink instead of a whack, it does put me in my place: From then on, I defer to the man in charge by keeping the challenging questions to myself.

Your Friends & Neighbors starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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