I want to start taking time here in the MovieHype pages to spotlight the works of directors I particularly love. As many of you know, I feel very strongly that you should go see a film based on a director and writer more than the stars; as they are the ones responsible for the quality the movie.
Most of us have heard of the big names, but there are many talented directors out there who deserve our attention. You don’t have to get the latest Jerry Bruckheimer release when you go to the video store. There are treasures out there just waiting to be discovered.
We start with one of my favorite directors, Neil LaBute. LaBute is a playwright who turned to movies, so far directing five of them:
IN THE COMPANY OF MEN
YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
Nurse Betty was a studio film, and while underrated did not live up to LaBute’s genius. And POSSESSION is so unique that it deserves its own column. I want to talk about LaBute’s other three films, which act as a thematic trilogy of cruelty.
Let me say at the outset that these films are not for children or people who want sunny characters and happy endings. In other words: I wouldn’t let my mom near them. But if you’re looking for great performances, fantastic dialogue and a realistic approach to relationships we just don’t see in modern cinema, Neil is your boy.
00659 - IN THE COMPANY OF MEN
The idea is almost sickeningly simple. Two guys, beat down by the corporate world they live in, totally emasculated by women. No longer men, but worms writhing on the ground. On a six week business trip to another city, they decide to get their revenge.
Their plan: find a girl who’s given up on dating, having a romantic life. Both of them come at her; flowers, phone calls, dates, the whole thing, continually upping themselves, putting this girl in a whirlwind she never expected before. Where her heart was barren, now there was two.
At the end of the six weeks, they two men will pull the rug out from under this girl, reveal the whole plan, and simply walk away. For the rest of their lives they will always have this moment. The world may continue to crush them, but they did this.
At least, that’s the plan.
It sounds beyond sick. But I’m going to trust that you’ve seen a movie before and you know that best laid plans almost never work out as planned. Else, why watch the movie?
I remember the first time I watched IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, with my brother. We were grotesquely fascinated by the concept, but proceeded to get almost sick when we met Stacy. She turns out to be deaf, the sweetest girl you’ve ever met. They can’t possibly be planning on doing this, can they?
I find it interesting talking to people about their view of this part of the film (before the complications set in). Most view it as the filmmaker intended; an attack on men, their piggish ways. Some, however (read: women), take the set up as a glorification of Men Behaving Badly. I’ve never been a woman mistreated by a man, so I don’t know the kind of baggage that comes with that. I do find it interesting how we take in our own past into a movie, and view it that way.
Of course, with all this discussion, I’m totally omitting what actually happens. That’s because it’s so interesting I want you to see it for yourself. The other two main reasons to see this film are Neil LaBute and Aaron Eckhart.
LaBute is a playwright. Most of his movies are obviously adapted plays, and as such aren’t as heavily into locations or camera movements. (He can do these things, as he showed in NURSE BETTY and especially POSSESSION, but it’s not important here.) What LaBute excels at his dialogue. He has an ear for men and women, the secret worlds they in habit, the battlefields they share. LaBute seems to see the modern world as a power struggle between men and women. It sounds bleak, but I can’t say he’s wrong.
The other reason to see this film is Aaron Eckhart. If this was a studio film or he’d been a name-brand, Eckhart would have been an Oscar nominee for sure. His performance is venal, vehement and vicious, but at the same time, you just can’t help but kind of admire the guy. Here he is the ringleader in this awful idea, doing horrible things, and I’m rooting for him! Is there something wrong with me? (Possibly.) It all comes down to how great a performance this is, one of the 15 best since 1990.
You need to understand; while there is no violence or nudity, and the language is no more than normal R, most people will not be able to handle watching this. I absolutely forbid any guy to watch this with his girlfriend. You’ll be in the company of men—and men only—for a long time.
But for those of you who are into smaller independent films, and like discovering gems, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN is a real find. It’s a perfect movie, and has snuck into my personal top twenty list. With the number of movies I’ve seen, that’s quite a feat.
00660 - YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
Though none of the characters have returned, thematically YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS is the second film in Neil LaBute’s look at viciousness between people in modern relationships. Where IN THE COMPANY OF MEN might be superficially titled “Men Behaving Badly,” this time we’ve graduated to “Everyone Acting Awful.”
Aaron Eckhart returns, this time as a chubby cuckold married to Amy Brenneaman. Speaking of cuckold, Brennaman’s character doesn’t seem to love her husband, although he definitely loves her. He hasn’t cheated on her or beat or I’m not sure what, but she just seems tired of the sameness of it all. If only to get a break she takes up with Ben Stiller, a drama teacher and sometimes actor. (I use the character’s real names because no names are used in the film.)
Stiller is with Catherine Keener, who acts more like a man than most men. She wants Stiller to just shut the hell up more often, especially during and after sex. She ends up with Nastassja Kinski, an Artist’s assistant, but Catherine finds out that if Ben Still acts too much like a woman, a real woman is far worse.
[Ladies, a helpful note: Men (and Catherine Keener) don’t like to be asked all the time what their favorite thing is about you, or what’s wrong, or how they feel about something. Try that too often and you’ll get labeled as clingy and possessive.]
Then there’s Jason Patric, and at the risk of offending those six SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL fans out there, this is by far the best work I’ve seen of him. Patric is if anything, more vicious than Eckhart’s
Here’s just one example. One scene shows Patric yelling at someone through a bathroom door. As the scene progresses, we find out that just prior to (or possibly during) sex, the girl had her period on Patric’s 380 thread count sheets. Jason Patric seems to (strongly) feel that this girl has done it on purpose, just to ruin his night. Although the scene is played for darkly comic effect (the last line is too awful to quote here, but every time I say it I laugh for at last an hour), when you pull back Jason Patric is almost a monster. I have it on good authority that no sane woman would ever do that, and you can imagine the horror and shame the poor girl is going through. (We only see her briefly in the bathroom, head bent over and sobbing.)
This isn’t even in Patric’s top three of terrible things he does in the movie, including one scene that takes place in a steam room that goes in the pantheon of great monologues. It sets up a pay off in the next scene that’s even better. Quite possibly the best pay off line in the history of film, and I don’t say that lightly.
As you’re reading this, you’re probably horrified yourself at what I’m describing. This would be a good time to tell you that this movie isn’t for everyone. There is no violence or nudity, but there is strong language. More than that, it’s just these people treating each other so awfully. Yes, it’s played as darkly funny, but not everyone will feel that way. I myself—pretty much in love with Neil LaBute that I am—had to cover my eyes in more than one cringe-inducing scene.
Yet in some ways YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS is even better than IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. The movie isn’t as complete or self-contained, but neither is it a one trick pony. And the dialogue is even better. Neil LaBute is one of the top five dialogue writers in World Cinema today. My advice is to watch IN THE COMPANY OF MEN first, and if you dig the way LaBute writes his characters, jump right on in for Round 2.
This brings us to round three.
00661 – THE SHAPE OF THINGS
We’ve covered men and couples; now it’s the chicks’ turn. Our cast: Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller. Mol and Weller are perfect for their parts (which was a little scary since after ROUNDERS I assumed Gretchen Mol was the worst actor of her generation, but it turns out it was just a poorly written part). Rudd and Weisz are who shine, though.
When our movie starts Paul Rudd is an overweight nerd, sweet and likable, but the kind of guy who NEVER gets the girl. He meets up with Rachel Weisz in a museum as she’s about to deface a famous statue. The girl is a rebel. She’s out of his league. And he’s in love.
Strangely, she seems attracted to him, and Paul couldn’t be happier. However, she starts changing him in little ways, enough so that his friends start noticing. (I know: a girl trying to change a guy? Where do they come up with this stuff?)
I’ll stop my recitation at this point, since LaBute is up to his old tricks and I don’t want to ruin anything.
I heartily recommend you do not start with THE SHAPE OF THINGS, but progress here if you like the first two films. This one isn’t as good, but in some ways the behavior is the most jarring. I can’t make up my mind. (If anyone does decide to see all three films, I’d love to have a discussion about who acts the “worst:” men, women or couples.)
There’s no doubt LaBute isn’t pretty. He puts male/female power struggles into his work like no one working today. Still, for those who can handle it, I think Neil LaBute is a genius. He crystallizes thoughts we have but don’t speak. He goes places we wouldn’t think. And if nothing else, he makes us realize we don’t have it so bad.