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No 'Friends' of Ours

By Stephen Hunter
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
Sexual explicitness and verbal violence
"Your Friends & Neighbors"?

Well, no. Not my friends and neighbors. Not anybody's friends and neighbors, unless you live in the sixth circle of Hell, where it rains ammonia all day long.

That's how toxic Neil LaBute's new film is. Where is FEMA when you need it?

Basically a group portrait of three young men who want to be sleeping with everybody except the women they are sleeping with, but still want to sleep with those women and also don't want anybody else to sleep with them. It's a festival of bad boyism. And bad girlism: The females are just as vicious. Worse yet, it's a festival of annoyance. For example, one of LaBute's characters is whiny, treacherous, cowardly, manipulative and deeply off-putting. And he's the hero!

LaBute attracted great attention with his first feature, "In the Company of Men," which was similarly misanthropic but much more focused and dramatically developed. This, his second film, sports a much larger and more famous cast, bigger budget and better production values. But it's pretty much the same story, with the same characters under different names and performed by different actors, doing the same nasty things.

For example, in "Men," a terrific actor named Aaron Eckhart played a sublimely vicious sociopath named Chad Piercewell (he was a cad and pierced well) who manipulated a fat friend toward destruction. In "Your Friends & Neighbors" there's still a vicious sociopath and he still manipulates a fat friend toward destruction, but now Eckhart, plumped up like a Christmas goose for the basting, is the fat friend, and the hard-body monster is played by Hollywood hotshot Jason Patric. It's not nearly so merry, however, because bad Patric isn't nearly so much fun as bad Eckhart and good Eckhart is no fun at all. Moreover, "Your Friends & Neighbors" lacks the incision, the clinicality of the first movie. As a piece of storytelling, it's a mess.

A final unnecessary idiocy: It's one of those infantile horrors where the characters' names all rhyme: Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary and Jerry. What happened to Harry? That's the trouble with Harry! He's never around when you need him!

Let's not bother with the names, which are meaningless anyhow. Let's call the characters Amy (Brenneman), Aaron (Eckhart), Catherine (Keener), Nastassja (Kinski), Jason (Patric) and Ben (Stiller). It's much clearer that way, Larry.

Ben is with Catherine, who loathes him, because he talks during sex. Aaron is with Amy, though he's pretty lame in the sack and would rather – how can I say this? – entertain himself. Jason is in the company of wolves – that is, with himself, and only pretending friendship with the other two guys, while trying to share his DNA with everything that walks (and I do mean everything, as a story he tells makes clear). Nastassja, who works in an art gallery, is not with anybody either, but she wants to be with someone – Catherine. So everydamnbody begins to switch with everyotherdamnbody.

The performances are so monotonic that you understand depicting authentic humanity is not the writer-director's goal: Each character has been reduced to a single unpleasant primal trait from which deviation is not permitted. Jason (for the record: Cary) is the bad dog, and he's that and only that, without color, texture, contradiction, reality. Ben (the record again: Jerry) is the whiner, and he is the ultimate, compleat, total, endless whiner. He whines with such gusto and witless serenity that he becomes truly unendurable. Ladies and gentleman, for the love of God, can we not agree that one Ben Stiller movie per year is enough!

In the end, everybody gets their most fervent wish, and remains just as furiously miserable as before the partner-switching began. The two most innocent – Amy and Aaron – naturally are punished the most severely. The two most guilty – Jason and Catherine – are rewarded, as they should be. Ben and Nastassja just go on, still not getting it.

Now and then, LaBute stumbles into something funny. In one sequence, Jason, who seems to be an OB/GYN doc, begins to absent-mindedly punt a fetus model about the hospital, a true reflection of his deep commitment to family values. In several others, the joy the characters take in unbearable verbal destruction has a kind of horrifying fascination to it.

But the film has no shape or narrative force. It merely chronicles events. And LaBute's prime stylistic trick – to flatten out the background, depopulate the world until the film feels so theatrically spare that nothing is left but character and words – becomes annoyingly artificial as the story gets wearier.

If friends and neighbors like this moved in next door, you'd think: There goes the universe.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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