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1 item from 1998

Film review: 'Your Friends & Neighbors'

14 August 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Neil LaBute's follow-up to his breakthrough debut, "In the Company of Men", is a similarly themed, tough-talking exploration of sexual politics.

A larger budget and big-name actors give this film a glossier sheen than its predecessor and should result in bigger boxoffice as well, but "Your Friends & Neighbors" suffers from the same artificiality and stiffness that made "Men" such an academic exercise.

LaBute seems determined to shock in his portraits of the war between the sexes, and here he takes on marital relations, focusing on two couples: Jerry (Ben Stiller), a pretentious college drama professor, and his beleaguered wife Terri (Catherine Keener); and Barry (Aaron Eckhart, so powerful as the sleazy protagonist of "Men") and his dissatisfied wife Mary (Amy Brenneman).

Also figuring prominently are the misogynistic Cary (Jason Patric), a friend to both men, and Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a beautiful artist's assistant who is hit on by every male character but who begins an affair with Terri. These names, incidentally, come courtesy of the press notes; LaBute, using the by now cliched method of universalizing his characters, uses no names in the film.

Both couples are clearly having problems.

When we first encounter Jerry and Terri together, she is complaining about his habit of constantly talking to her during sex, a complaint she expresses in the most colorful terms. Barry and Mary's sex life is nonexistent despite his constant reminders to her of his physically aroused state. He's the kind of man who is able to advise, in utter seriousness, "You need to see me as a penis".

The good-looking Cary is equally messed up; the film's opening shot features him earnestly humping his empty bed, all the while practicing his sex talk for the "chicks."

Jerry and Mary make an ill-fated attempt at an affair, but he, much to Mary's frustration, fails to physically perform. The resulting complications form the crux of the story, which resembles one of Woody Allen's tales of urban, love-starved neurotics, as interpreted by David Mamet.

LaBute, who wrote and directed, is clearly onto something in his depictions of the fractured relationships between the sexes; one has only to consult the best-seller list, filled with titles by the likes of John Gray, to gauge how skillfully he's tapping into the national zeitgeist.

But this film, like his first work, feels more like an exaggerated polemic than a drama (or comedy) filled with living, breathing characters. Although everyone in the audience should wince with the recognition of a common attitude with one of the onscreen figures, the overall effect is more repellent than enlightening, more dependent on shock value than insight.

Still, the film should fulfill its mission of inviting debate and discussion, and there are some moments that resonate with a comic horror. The skillful performers don't flinch from depicting the more unsavory sides of their characters. Stiller (on an acting roll these days) delineates Jerry's smugness and falsity with clinical precision. Keener's portrayal of the sharp-tongued Terri should strike a chord with unhappy women everywhere, and Brenneman, as the more vulnerable Mary, is quite affecting.

Eckhart, who gained considerable weight for his role, is the perfect embodiment of male sluggishness, while Patric, no doubt happy to be free of the mindlessness of a "Speed 2", conveys Cary's slimy chauvinism with all-out gusto. And Kinski, conveying intelligence as well as stunning beauty, is a perfectly cast object of desire.

The canny choice of musical score features the music of Metallica as interpreted by a string quartet. These refined, prettified renditions of dark, incendiary material perfectly reflect the characters' attempts to mask their immoral behavior under the guise of sophistication.


Gramercy Pictures

Director-screenplay: Neil LaBute

Producers: Steve Golin, Jason Patric

Executive producers: Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Stephen Pevner

Co-producer: Philip Steuer

Director of photography: Nancy Schreiber

Editor: Joel Plotch



Mary: Amy Brenneman

Barry: Aaron Eckhart

Terri: Catherine Keener

Cheri: Nastassja Kinski

Cary: Jason Patric

Jerry: Ben Stiller

Running time -- 100 minutes

MPAA rating: R


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