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Review: 'Your Friends and Neighbors'

August 26, 1998

Jason MyersBy JASON MYERS

Barry (Aaron Eckhart) gives Mary (Amy Brenneman) a watch while Terri (Catherine Keener) and Jerry (Ben Stiller) are over at their house for dinner. As this gift is passed around for all to admire, Jerry comments that the watch does not work. Everyone else assures him that the item is intended as a piece of jewelry, that people wear old watches around for design (now Rolex has a fallback plan; "What do you mean your watch no longer keeps time, Mr. Bouvier? Are you displeased with the aesthetic value?") Jerry insists that this is absurd.

In Neil LaBute's absurdly dour black comedy "Your Friends and Neighbors," time has stopped. It is so sad and sour that his first feature, the startling "In the Company of Men," seems joyous and centered by comparison.

In "Friends and Neighbors," scenes are established to resemble one, then another, and given a surreal context so that location or time begins to feel irrelevant.

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LaBute's film functions on two levels. It has a series of irritated, irritating men and women - the entire film sees only the two aforementioned couples, then Cary (Jason Patric) and Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) - trying to endure their neuroses, sexual and otherwise.

Cary is the most self-adoring of the sextet, though they're all self-absorbed; but LaBute's point is about their lack of selves. His monochromatic color design and the reiteration of several scenes and dialogue result in a powerful statement upon the blandness of modern life. For example, Cheri works as an artist's assistant at an unnamed museum. The other characters make statements that mirror the comments of the others, while LaBute leaves the camera in the same position. LaBute never shows us the painting everyone ponders at the museum, and the characters might address one another by name once in the entire film. You know he's doing this to resemble the detached and isolated emotions he perceives in modern city dwellers.

"Life's complicated," Mary, a freelance writer, tells Jerry, a professor of drama, after an affair between them has ended, as all relationships in this film begin, proceed and end, awkwardly. Not only is what she says a cliche beneath LaBute's skills, but it does not flow into the pattern of the film.

LaBute has taken the complications out of the movie. Sure, there are dreadful silences and sex scenes; but the way in which LaBute has removed the characters from time and place and standard narrative belies any reality in which life is complicated.

If "Your Friends and Neighbors" is compelling for any reason, it is on account of two performances.

Cary is a character casually vicious, who holds even his friends in a form of contempt, and Patric plays the role with a menace unequalled by any actor since Hopkins played Hannibal. Cary might not be a cannibal, but Patric has a deadpan so unnerving that you do not doubt he could have killed someone.

Catherine Keener is acidic in another manner. Terri dislikes communication, especially during sex, and the breakup scene between Jerry and she at the end of the film escalates to a pitch as feverish as you are going to find in a Neil LaBute film. Keener can sell just about any line of dialogue, but even after she's earned commission, she makes throwaway lines funny.

The general distrust of others by characters in "In the Company of Men" was interchangeable with corporate climate.

In "Your Friends and Neighbors" the characters' dissociation is exactly that - they are lost in time.




Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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