Your Friends and Neighbors (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For his second feature, director Neil LaBute ventures across a domestic landscape that is no less dark than the world of corporate backstabbing he visited with In the Company of Men. Those looking for something lightweight or feel-good need not bother with Your Friends and Neighbors, a slow-moving, often disturbing look at miscommunication between the sexes, dysfunctional personalities, and the disintegration of relationships. The film contains enough humor to qualify it as a black comedy, but, underneath all the dialogue, Your Friends and Neighbors offers a bleak message about life and love in an era of growing emotional isolation.

The characters in Your Friends and Neighbors are well-defined, but there isn't much growth. We know who they are, but not who they have been or who they will become. They are creatures of the moment. That's really the point, though, since Your Friends and Neighbors is designed as a voyeuristic peek behind the drapes and blinds of suburban bedrooms, not a drama with character arcs. With a sparse narrative that does little more than move the protagonists from situation to situation, the movie lives and dies on the basis of two primary characteristics: acting and dialogue. Both, fortunately, are strengths.

The first person we're introduced to is Cary (Jason Patric), an egotistical womanizer who uses sex as a weapon. Those who saw In the Company of Men will recognize similarities between Cary and that film's vicious protagonist, Chad. Cary doesn't really have women problems, because he never lets anyone get close to him. He sleeps with them, then discards them. On the other hand, Cary's two friends, Jerry (Ben Stiller) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), are embroiled in problematic relationships. Jerry, a college drama professor, is having increasing difficulties with his girlfriend, Terri (Catherine Keener), who wants him to be quiet during sex. Barry is unable to perform with his wife, Mary (Amy Brenneman), leaving them both sexually frustrated. Meanwhile, there's the wild card, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), a artist's assistant who, in her quest to have meaningful human contact, meets the other characters one-by-one as they stop by the gallery where she works.

There isn't one healthy male/female relationship in Your Friends and Neighbors. Jerry and Terri are at each other's throats from the beginning, and are cheating on one another before the movie is half over. Barry and Mary, despite having what looks to outsiders like the ideal marriage, are miserable because their attempts at sexual intimacy turn into sessions of ego-bruising failure. Then, when Mary tries to have an affair, the experience is an unmitigated disaster, destroying what little self-confidence she has about her ability in bed. As for the other two characters, Cary rejects the concept of intimacy, and Cheri craves it like a drug.

It's impossible to dismiss what LaBute has to say as the ramblings of a cynic, because there's much truth in these characters and in the sentiments they express. LaBute has not created a gallery of bizarre, larger-than-life individuals. As the title implies, these are our friends and neighbors, the kind of people we meet every day at home and at work. LaBute's intention here is not to distort reality, but to expose the fiction of the American dream and to demonstrate that, as Jerry explains it, everything in life and literature is "just men and women… and it's always about [sex]."

Unlike many of today's young directors, who seem more comfortable filming action sequences than character interaction, LaBute understands how to photograph intimate moments. His camera is never static, but it doesn't move around so much that it calls attention to itself. LaBute also writes believable, pointed dialogue. When Jerry, Barry, and Cary get together for occasional "boys' nights out," much of what they say rings true. And the writer/director injects humor into all of these discourses, so that sometimes even the most potent revelations come with a laugh (albeit an uncomfortable one).

LaBute, whose stock has risen since the release of In the Company of Men, used his newfound clout to assemble an impressive ensemble of high-profile actors. Jason Patric, perhaps best remembered for his part in the box office bomb Speed 2, plays Cary with a cold intensity that is almost psychotic. As Jerry, Ben Stiller creates a character who is likable and more than a little pathetic. Catherine Keener's Terri is strident and annoying -- this part gives the actress, who typically plays quiet individuals, a chance to show her bitchy side. Amy Brenneman's Mary is sad and wistful. Then there's Aaron Eckhart, who has changed his appearance so drastically for this part that those who saw him in In the Company of Men may not recognize him. He gained weight and dyed his hair to portray Barry, the kindest and most clueless member of the group. The only one without a solid role to sink her teeth into is Nastassja Kinski, whose screen time is limited.

In its devotion to dialogue, Your Friends and Neighbors reminded me a little of James Toback's recent Two Girls and a Guy, although the characters here are richer and LaBute has generated a more compelling script. It's refreshing to see a movie like this -- something that's edgy and entertaining, and doesn't try to appeal to "the masses." As was true for In the Company of Men, LaBute doesn't care if viewers are offended. Supported by a fine group of actors, he tells the story without compromises, and that gives us a refreshing alternative to multiplex fare.

Your Friends and Neighbors (United States, 1998)

Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Jason Patric, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Aaron Eckhart, Amy Brenneman, Nastassja Kinski
Screenplay: Neil LaBute
Cinematography: Nancy Schreiber
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1998-08-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1