USA / 1998
Director and Writer: Neil LaBute
Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Jason Patric, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski
Neil LaBute recaptures the predatory world of his debut, In the Company of Men, with this ensemble drama. Terri (Catherine Keener) and her husband Jerry (Ben Stiller) are veterans of self-loathing, with an unrewarding sex life that signals an imploding marriage. Their friend Barry (Aaron Eckhart) is fulfilled only by self-loving, finding the attention of his wife Mary (Amy Brenneman) vaguely repellent. The two couples meet over dinner, where Jerry propositions Mary, and they agree to meet again.
At an art gallery, Terri encounters the mysterious Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), and they begin an affair. Mary has less luck, after unsuccessful encounters with Jerry and Barry respectively fail to satisfy. The only exception to this cycle is Cary (Jason Patric), who earns the envy of his friends by recounting his numerous sexual conquests, but then admits his best experience followed the gang rape of a male schoolfriend. After the revelation, Jerry admits his relationship with Mary, and all their lives begin to unravel with alarming speed and brutal results…
“I think of the movie as a comedy,” said LaBute, underplaying its dramatic impact and compelling, if depressing, characters. The film’s humour is abundant and appears to aspire to the values of the Restoration comedy, but not everyone was convinced. “Perhaps I’m not alone in finding his ultra-cynicism offensive,” claimed Sight & Sound, who called it, “As phoney, shallow and opportunistic as the pieties it inverts.”
The director certainly sticks to Hollywood convention by having a physically attractive cast, but their internal ugliness is a long way from the mainstream. The actors thrive, but former NYPD Blue star Brenneman is the most memorable, by turns brittle and exploited (her final scene is close to unwatchable, for the right reasons). Stiller also impresses, playing sadistic misogyny with the same zeal he would later apply to the clear-cut comedy of Meet the Parents and Zoolander.