Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In The Company of Men (1997)

Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men follows two mid-nineties corporate types--complete with wacky ties--who’ve just been dumped by their longtime girlfriends. To collectively get back at the opposite sex, they come up with a particularly devilish plan: while on a six-week business trip in fly-over country, they will simultaneously begin dating the same woman, gain her affection, and then unexpectedly blow her off and skip town (it may be juvenile, but I couldn’t help being reminded of The Dennis System). It’s the kind of thing that inadvertently happens in countless relationships, but the kicker here, of course, is that the two bastards are doing it on purpose.

The duo involved in this nefarious scheme couldn’t be more different. Chad, played with a really despicable gusto by Aaron Eckhart, is an unapologetic misogynist who sees people as pawns and dupes to be played for all they’re worth. He puts off the impression of being just a fast-talking, opportunistic jock--the kind of guy whose handshake is always a bit too strong--but by the end of the movie your not likely to think of him as anything other than an out-and-out sociopath. Howard (Matt Malloy), meanwhile, is an unassuming, bookish-looking middle manager, but LaBute establishes early on that he likes to think he’s every bit the smooth operator that Chad is. Together, they decide to take on the task of breaking the heart of Christine (Stacey Edwards, who is terrific), a shy, good-hearted typist who works in their building and--oh yeah--also happens to be deaf. No one could accuse LaBute of pulling any punches when it comes to taking his comedy extra black.

This may all sound too dark to take, and at times it is, but on the whole LaBute manages to balance the woman-hating style of his lead characters with a healthy dose of satire, not only of masculinity and the vampiric nature of some modern relationships, but of corporate culture in general (Chad, for one, seems like he would fit right in with Patrick Bateman and company from American Psycho--which would make a fitting, if not uncomfortable, double feature with this film). It all amounts to an unusually good exploration of why bad people do the things they do, which is a much tougher trick to pull off than it sounds. I remember once hearing a critic say that this movie encapsulates the whole notion of “the banality of evil” as good as anything outside of the Coen Bros. canon, and I think they have a point. LaBute seems fascinated by the duplicitous behavior that outwardly upstanding people are capable of, and it's something he’s explored throughout his career. In fact, his recent effort The Shape of Things seems nothing if not an expansion of the ideas he’s playing with here. (That film, interestingly, is told not from the point of view of the victimizer but of the victim, who, even more interestingly, happens to be a man.)

My only problem with In the Company of Men, outside of the grating-but-sparse jazz score, is LaBute’s visual style. It’s become sort of a joke at this point that no director who comes to film by way of theatre (as LaBute did) can ever display even the most minimal deftness of visual style, and he’s no different. The film is all static shots and takes so over-long that the actors occasionally stumble over their lines. I wish I could say that this insular style allows us to focus in on the gleefully mean-spirited nature of LaBute’s dialogue, but really it's just off-putting and sometimes a bit tedious. Still, In the Company of Men provides more than enough substance to get over its lack of style. This includes a real killer of an ending--the kind of scene that’s bound to stay with you, probably for a few days longer than you’d like it to.

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