Your Friends and Neighbors

Woody Allen and Harry Jaglom are getting a bit long in the tooth. All too soon, the masters of subcutaneous introspection will move on to greener couches. Not to worry, though. We now have Hal Hartley and Neil LaBute to keep us in portraits of neurotic urban professionals well into the next century. Thank heaven for small mercies.

And small they are, if LaBute's second feature is anything to go by. Your Friends and Neighbors is a tedious visit with a sextet of yuppies who, to put it politely, suffer from some very heavy unresolved issues. As one might expect, they are all amoral and infantile to some degree. Jason Patric's misanthropic stud is the most malignant, Amy Brenneman's repressed journalist is the most benign (these two, of course, will find each other in the end). In the middle are Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Ben Stiller and Nastassja Kinski, joyless narcissists fumbling toward agony with one another in various trysts and domestic contretemps.

If ever there was a film equivalent to a dentist's drill, this is it. Begin with the title: The implication is that we all know people like this. You might if you live and work in Hollywood or Wall Street where conniving weasels are a dime a dozen. The press kit is full of gush from the actors about how LaBute is some sort of timely pioneer of social criticism, revealing at last how the white thirtysomething world really is -- everywhere. But there's also a distinct Brave New World flavor to his work; utterly downbeat and sterile. His thesis seems to be that oppression comes less from the powers that be directly than from inside our own heads as we try to "make it" within a bad system. We mind-fuck ourselves silly and in the process, become acid-tongued headcases, forever scuttling our relationships and our souls.

The film, with its stilted, too-clever-by-half dialogue, angst-in-the-pants acting and shameless attempts to shock and bother, tests one's patience to no end. It's a wank session dressed up as a bedroom farce without the farce. Allen's Deconstructing Harry provides a far more engaging and funny portrait of soulless people doing their best to do their worst. If only Neil LaBute would stop reading his Mamet crib notes from his Yale MFA workshops and lighten up, we might feel like doing something other than punch him in the mouth. Not a pretty picture, in every sense of the phrase.

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