Your Friends & Neighbors
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Amy Brenneman (Mary), Aaron Eckhart (Barry), Catherine Keener (Terri), Nastassja Kinski (Cheri), Jason Patric (Cary), Ben Stiller (Jerry)
Neil LaBute's "Your Friends & Neighbors" is akin to a sociological cataloging of human misery, cruelty, and sexual dysfunction. Its characters are either inhumane, self-absorbed, insipid, or all of the above. Throughout the film, those personality flaws (which are so immense, the word flaw seems insufficient) come into constant conflict, causing unending misery and pain. Only one character escapes unhurt, and that is only because he is arguably invincible from feeling human pain because he cannot feel any emotions outside his own hatred.
Like LaBute's first film, last year's "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors" takes place in an unnamed city. It broadens the character scope from "Men" by having six major characters instead of only three. However, "Friends & Neighbors" is more claustrophobic in its settings (always indoor) and flabbier in its script. While "Men" was a taut, relentless morality tale, "Friends & Neighbors" seems surprisingly listless. It simply floats along on its characters' self-induced misery, moving from scene to scene as they slowly destroy their own lives from the inside out.
The major characters are composed of two couples and two singles. The couples (who are never named until the final credits, making them that much less human) are Barry (Aaron Eckhart) and Terri (Catherine Keener), who are married, and Jerry (Ben Stiller) and Mary (Amy Brenneman), who are not. Jason Patric (who also co-produced the film) stars as Cary, a friend of Barry and Jerry's who is single and as nihilistic as they come. Finally, there's Nastassja Kinski as Cary, an artist's assistant at a museum who begins an affair with Mary.
Suffice to say, the majority of the plot revolves around how these various characters cheat on one another with the others, and their names all ending with -y (or the fact that they are never named in the dialogue) suggests they are essentially interchangeable. The film is set up like a tragedy, but it doesn't have much resonance because the people are never happy to begin with. Unlike Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973) or Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" (1992), both of which deal with deteriorating relationships in superior fashion, LaBute's film never gives us the illusion that any of its characters are happy in their present situations. In fact, it suggests they never were happy, never could be happy, and never will be happy, no matter in what situation they put themselves.
Each character is built around two interrelated dysfunctions: the inability or lack of desire to communicate with others, and sexual dilemmas of varying sorts. Much of the labored dialogue among these characters is inflected with lots of "uh," "so," "well," and uncomfortable silences. They simply cannot talk to one another as civilized human beings. The only times the words flow is when someone is yelling at someone else.
Sexually, problems abound. Mary doesn't enjoy sex with Jerry because he talks too much; Jerry doesn't enjoy sex with Mary because he wants to talk and she won't let him. Barry and Terri, although the happiest couple on their shallow exteriors, are introduced in bed where they are attempting intercourse in an awkward position and fail miserably. In a later scene, Barry happily confides to a friend that he gets more satisfaction masturbating than making love with his wife, although he later claims that his best sexual experience was with his wife; in other words, he doesn't know what he likes or what he wants or how to communicate that to anyone. Eckhart, who put on about 30 pounds to play the role, essentially plays the someone who is the exact opposite of his character from "In the Company of Men," and he is just as good.
Cary, Jason Patric's character, is another story altogether. For him, sex is a game; not a playful game of tricks and semantics like one might see on a sitcom, but a full-contact sport where destruction of the other person is the ultimate goal. There are numerous, bone-chilling scenes where Cary either relates atrocities he has committed in the past (such as getting revenge on an ex-girlfriend by making her think she has AIDS) or conducts them on-screen (such as when he verbally humiliates one of his partners because she begins menstruating at an inopportune time).
There is one point where Cary relates the tale of what he considers his best sexual experience. The harrowing story he tells is so horrifying--not only in its contents, but in the blasé manner in which he relates it--that it truly calls into question whether or not this man has a soul. That notion is reconfirmed later when Barry asks him if he thinks all his evil deeds will catch up with him in the end. Cary simply shrugs, says "probably," but reassures that this is "his time" right now, and nothing else matters. Patric's performance is superbly cruel, and nothing he has done prior to this film suggested his ability to play such a dark, nihilistic character.
In the film's subject matter and in its ironic title (these people are, after all, your friends and neighbors), LaBute says that sex is at the heart of existence for everybody, and communication is merely a tool used by men and women to achieve sexual contact, although that contact is more often destructive than constructive. The film's characters cannot communicate and therefore their sexuality suffers, and because they aren't having good sex, there's nothing to talk about. In an early scene, Stiller's character, who is a drama instructor, informs his students that every story can essentially be boiled down to "men and women." "And what do they want to do?" he asks them. "They want to f---."
Which is essentially what "Your Friends & Neighbors" is about, and therein lies its weakness. "In the Company of Men," LaBute's debut feature, is a significantly better film because it is more complex; although both films essentially deal with the same subjects--power, cruelty, sex as a weapon, the human capacity to harm others--"Men" was not only richer thematically, but it was a more watchable film because it displayed levels of human development and concentrated its observations on how characters at different levels interacted.
In that film, two men played by Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy play a cruel joke on an innocent deaf woman played by Stacy Edwards. Edwards represents the good potential of humanity that always becomes the victim of cruelty; Eckhart represents the worst of humanity that seeks out decency to destroy it; and Malloy is that gray in-between, a weak character who is essentially decent, but can be manipulated into cruelty.
This was, I think, what made that film so powerful--not that it simply shows a group of cruel, immoral people and all the damage they can do, but because it demonstrates how and why people become cruel and immoral: either through extreme anger or weakness. "Friends & Neighbors" lacks that textual element. Without the potential for decency to counterbalance and give context to the cruelty, "Your Friends & Neighbors" becomes a simple study in human depravity. And, although well-made (LaBute is an expertly minimalistic director), it lacks that extra dimension that could have made it resonate.
©1998 James Kendrick