By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
When did American movies get so sexless? In movie after movie, it's the same: a man, a woman, discreet lighting, no bad angles; as with happy endings, orgasms are inevitable. For the most part, you'd have to go back to the '70s to find a scene in which two adults hump without the gauzed-over niceties; if it's a gay movie, you'd have to retreat to the '80s. The irony is that while modern movies tend to be willfully tame, the sex scenes function the same way that the money shot functions in porn: as the payoff for everything that's come before, our reward for all the foreplay chatter. Sex scenes these days are a time-out not just for the characters but the audience: a chance to take a break from the story and check out the jiggle factor of the leading lady's tits, or to snicker at some aging idol's mortified rear end. As soon as the plot revs up again, though, sex gets banished from the narrative. It says more than we probably care to know that about the only time sex gets integrated into the plot of a movie is when it's pathological, as with a Paul Verhoeven thriller or a slasher picture, films in which sex isn't just rough, but lethal.
No one gets killed in Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors, though there are plenty of lethal passions in evidence from the very first scene, in which actor Jason Patric, drenched in sweat, pantomimes sex alone in his bed. A beautiful hater and dedicated sack artist, Patric's character, Cary - who, like all the characters in the movie, is named only in the credits - has committed himself to perfecting his bedroom technique, primarily to wreak havoc on women. (He doesn't just tape his pillow talk for playback, he clocks it with a stopwatch.) Although the character has the dead eyes of a killer, his technique seems to have worked, even if we have to take his word for it. LaBute never shows Cary literally screwing - we see him shrieking at some blond huddled in his bathroom and, later, delivering curious comfort to another partner - but the writer-director does let the character talk his dirty, mean talk, mainly to himself and the two friends with whom he occasionally socializes: Barry, a hapless married man played by Aaron Eckhart, and Jerry, a college theater professor in a salt-and-pepper goatee, played by Ben Stiller.
Barry has just moved into a house with his wife, Mary, played by Amy Brenneman, while Jerry lives with Catherine Keener's advertising copywriter, Terri, a fierce, restless woman of the kind that doesn't often make it into American movies without an ice pick in hand. Rounding out the group is Nastassja Kinski as Cheri (LaBute no doubt thinks giving the characters rhyming names is cute, but it's the kind of gimmick that underscores a penchant for cleverness over meaning), a gallery worker who enters the group by way of an affair. But before she's wedged into the film, what gets the story going is Jerry's sudden, unsolicited come-on to Mary in her own living room while their unsuspecting partners are in the kitchen getting dessert and coffee ready. Coordinated in a giggled hush, that proposal is the first equation in a calculus of desire in which lovers are added, subtracted, multiplied and divided, relationships begun and ended. And while there's nothing particularly remarkable about the various intersecting subplots and character motivations - familiar, really, from any number of daytime soaps - what is remarkable is the absolute cool with which LaBute charts his story. Like Patric's character, the director has the soul of an assassin.
Your Friends & Neighbors is the first American movie in memory where sex isn't just a dividend, something, say, to prop up a sagging plot, or sales in the foreign market. It actually has something to do with the rest of everyday life. The film itself isn't remotely sexy, but it is filled with sex - sex talk, sex sweat, sex cruelty. The characters aren't always fucking (usually they're not), but when they're out of bed they're either obsessing over the sex they did have or most often didn't. The men function as uneasy allies in what can only superficially be called a war of the sexes - there's too much equal-opportunity malevolence to qualify for war - while the women tend to react to the men defensively, and be more sentimentally realized. Although it's hard to gauge where LaBute stands, he's not entirely liberated from cliche: He saves his nastiest, zingiest lines for the men and the more cryptic emotions for the women. Some of this has to do with the casting. While Eckhart and Brenneman are both tagged as losers, she brings a depth to her pathos - and a glint of malice - that he never summons. Keener and Patric play parallel types, his and hers predators, but while he remains one-dimensional, a sexed-up Terminator, she could have stepped out of a Mary Gaitskill story. All angles, with a hard, sneery mouth, Keener is terrific as the film's designated snatch, a woman who steps on a man's sentences and asserts fucking is fucking, not sharing and caring. It's a great role made greater by an actor who never loses sight of her character's humanity.
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