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Not a great movie, but it draws us in with its subtle power and intrigue. ***1/2 (out of four)
YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS / (1998) ***1/2 (out of four)
"Your Friends & Neighbors" is not really a film about sex, although every single scene, in some form or another, depicts its characters' obsessions with sexuality. The sex is not the subject of the film, but rather a medium for the characters to display various forms of behavior. Through eight very different characters, we realize the differences of behaviors, personalities, attitudes, and various degrees of selfishness. Although wealthy and classy, none of the characters are role model citizens. This is a tricky film to watch, never particularly entertaining, but often curiously involving. The sexual content and strong language will turn many audiences off, but this movie does have a solid understanding of itself, and I honor its art.
Neil Lebute is clearly more interested in the characters' sex lives than in a clear, concise story. Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener play partners. They have good friends, another couple played by Amy Brenneman and Aaron Eckhart. Stiller and Brenneman have an affair. Keener has issues with her partner's verbal expressions during sex-she finds a mate in a female artist's assistant played by Nastassja Kinski. Eckhart is his own favorite sexual partner. Jason Patrick plays a cruel, arrogant womanizer who forces his will on others. Eventually, the characters' selfishness destroys their own relationships. We become infatuated with these circumstances.
Many of the scenes contain a strange, subtle power of intrigue. One of my selection of scenes takes place in an art gallery, where the various characters chat with Nastassja Kinski's character. They have the same conversations, but the scenes end differently. Another fantastic scene is where the three men relax in a steam room and discuss their favorite sexual encounters. Jason Patrick's explanation packs a powerful, disturbing punch. Although these scenes do not necessarily construct a story, that's not a problem. The focus here is the vivid dialogue, the aggressive behavior, and the keen direction. This isn't a movie about a story. It's a movie about behavior.
The characters talk about sex constantly-whether it's in the supermarket, the basketball court, in bed, an art gallery, public restaurants, gym showers, their homes, business places, steam rooms, and more. The movie lacks passion to share with the audience, but we can tell Lebute is passionate about writing these characters. There is constantly an uneasy tension between most of them; they form no chemistry or charisma. He isolates them in their own world so that we can watch the interaction, not the romance.
"Your Friends & Neighbors" initially received an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. It contains very little nudity, no violence, and only a few scenes of actual sex. It received an R on appeal, but perhaps we should examine the association's motives for the higher rating. The discussions of sex in this movie are more vivid, more disturbing, more vivid than any actual act of sex. In a way, the MPAA honored the movie's power. They proved that Neil Lebute's social drama is certainly not for all audiences, and it's not really a great movie, but we should strongly respect the angle and courage.
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