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With 'Friends' Like These . . .

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 1998

  Movie Critic

Your Friends and Neighbors
Amy Brenneman and Aaron Eckhart are self-loathing "Friends." (Gramercy)

Neil LaBute
Jason Patric;
Nastassja Kinski;
Ben Stiller;
Catherine Keener;
Aaron Eckhart;
Amy Brenneman
Running Time:
1 hour, 39 minutes
Contains verbal and psychological abuse; profanity; clinical sex talk; sexual situations
Watching "Your Friends and Neighbors" is like watching something grow.

Not the proverbial grass, so emblematic of boredom, because the latest film from writer-director Neil LaBute is anything but dull.

It feels more like hunching over a microscope aimed at a petri dish of toxic microbes – a compelling mixture of abhorrence and morbid curiosity. The small cast of characters – three men and three women – are mischievously named Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry, but because they never refer to each other by name in the script, they might as well be called Streptococcus, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola, Pfiesteria and E. coli. Instead of eating away at flesh, though, LaBute's generic laboratory creatures gnaw away at the gristle of contemporary romantic relationships.

Mary (Amy Brenneman) is a writer, unhappily married to Barry (Aaron Eckhart), a soft and ineffectual man who has no idea of his wife's alienation. He's friends with Jerry (Ben Stiller), a loquacious drama teacher whose live-in girlfriend Terri (Catherine Keener) wishes he would just shut up in bed. Both of the men pal around with Cary (Jason Patric), a handsome bachelor whose corrosive egotism and misogyny approach psychotic levels. Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) is a lesbian who works in an art gallery where, one by one, she interacts with each cast member in a sequence of scenes that begin with identical dialogue.

By the film's bitter end, after an ugly series of seductions, betrayals, scathing rejections and desperate re-couplings, everyone ends up with someone other than whom he or she started with – and, in some cases, with no one at all.

If these repugnant people were really your friends and neighbors, your time would be more profitably spent reading the real estate listings than the movie reviews. But for 1 1/2 hours in a darkened theater, the derailment of their unhealthy emotions makes for one compulsively watchable train wreck.

A playwright by training, LaBute has created another chamber drama whose intensity rivals that of his provocative first film, "In the Company of Men," which examined in equally clinical fashion the brutal behavior of the Corporate Male toward his fellow woman and man. And, like that controversial and polarizing film, there is no exterior shot establishing exactly where this hyper-claustrophobic nightmare is taking place.

It is precisely the blandness of "Your Friends and Neighbors's" anonymous setting that underscores LaBute's message that these monsters are everywhere. Yet the film's flat, unapologetic theatricality – most scenes are staged against a static background such as a headboard, a booth in a restaurant, a sauna – provides the viewer with a necessary measure of detachment by reminding us of its artifice.

The film's strength lies not in the verisimilitude of the distorted microcosm LaBute presents but in the psychological truth of that world's inhabitants. The talented cast of this twisted "Friends," to a man and woman, succeeds in conveying even the most complex and cancerous of feelings: self-loathing that has mutated into belligerence, impotent rage and malignant desire.

Patric (who co-produced the film) is to be particularly commended for taking on the odious role of Cary, a man whose diseased soul is as hideous as his body is beautiful. In one hackles-raising monologue, Cary tells Jerry and Barry of his participation in a barbaric high-school sexual assault on a boy named Timmy.

They're only words (if ones whose atrociousness beggars description) but, as the camera zeros in on Patric's pretty eyes, it becomes clear that any actor brave enough to reach into the septic muck of his subconscious and come up with such an unwholesome and thoroughly convincing beast can only be trying to tell us to look to our own hearts for what lurks there.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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