In the Company of Men

The first film by writer-director Neil LaBute, In the Company of Men has been both exalted as a brilliant satire and scorned as a shallow burp of white male indigestion posing as satire. It’s probably a little of both. But that very uncertainty is what makes it such an uneasy and unforgettable experience. Working with a $25,000 budget (shades of Clerks — this movie could be called Jerks) and stark, spartan sets, LaBute keeps his camera locked down as his two protagonists, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), discuss the perfidies of women. Woman — that most untrustworthy and enraging creature! Listening to these two, we realize that some of their specific complaints would sound inoffensive if they were women talking about these same flaws in men. But these two, and Chad in particular, go a step further. They’re bewildered; they can’t believe they’re living in a world in which the rules keep changing and men can’t even pretend to be men any more. Chad talks about women as if they were a virus spreading and infecting everything.

LaBute never stands outside the sensibilities of these men, never tells us that of course he understands that they’re sexist pigs. (For this reason, the film should infuriate the literal-minded.) Chad, a rancid corporate slickster, and Howard, a schlumpy doormat, decide to get revenge for the pain that women have caused them. Their plan is to single out a woman — preferably lonely and grateful for any male attention — and court her simultaneously and separately, then dump her and gloat over the psychic damage they’ve wrought. Chad stumbles onto the perfect target: Christine (Stacy Edwards), a shy, beautiful secretary who also happens to be completely deaf.

In the Company of Men is a static and hermetic exercise; the head games in the boardroom and bedroom are intended as a microcosm for the callous corporate ethos that has coarsened us all. The form is farcical — critics have likened it to Restoration comedy and to Les Liaisons Dangereuses in particular — yet the tone is realistic, and the actors give performances to match. Eckhart smoothly embodies every frat boy turned office wolf; Malloy’s portrait of a spiritually squashed and pathetic man becomes almost too painful to watch. And Edwards, in an enchanting and utterly convincing turn, makes us feel what this war between the sexes is costing the other side.

Is it a great movie? It falls just short, I think. LaBute, like Jules Feiffer in his nasty men-women satire Carnal Knowledge, goes too far in hollowing out the men. They are nothing but resentment and manipulation, which sometimes leaves a dramatic void. So it’s hard to be involved in their game on a basic human level. We watch from a distance. A great satire, like A Clockwork Orange, would seduce us into complicity with evil. LaBute’s film isn’t nasty enough. Still, this is an energizing and indelible debut. And it ends on an appropriately sour note; the silence of the final shot may echo in your mind for days afterward.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, one of the year's best, satire

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