Friday, May 16, 2008

In the Company of Men (1997)

Writer-director Neil LaBute says that the screenplay for his film debut, In the Company of Men, was based on one line: "Let's hurt someone." I believe him. In the Company of Men is one of the wickedest and blackest of all comedies, a penetrating disquisition of acidic vileness and monotonous hatefulness.

The film opens in a disorienting manner. Two men speak with one another through a few different lonely settings. This long, sequentially located conversation is about the indignities men go through at the expense of women. "We can't even tell jokes in the workplace!" one gripes. That one is Chad, the other is Howard. Howard's latest relationship with a woman has soured badly. Chad says that his relationship has hit the rocks as well, with a woman named Susan leaving him. The way they speak to one another causes the audience to become all the more temporarily confused. One, Chad, speaks to the other in a manner that indicates that he knows Howard quite well. Howard, meanwhile, seems less open, more unsure of what he should or should not say to Chad. Are they good friends? If so, why does this strange, imbalanced dialogue exist? Why does Howard seem to be a subaltern in this relationship? Why does he appear to not know Chad particularly well?

By beginning the film in this manner, LaBute both complicates and simplifies the picture for the audience. Formally confusing, these early peculiar scenes actually inform the audience exactly of what to expect; an act of disorientation is ultimately an act of revelation. LaBute's endgame is hiding in plain sight. The viewer will have to play catch up, however, as the glorious pay off of both games of the film--the first by Chad and the second by LaBute--come late enough so as to retroactively explain precisely what this relationship between the two men truly is while maintaining both the suspense and overall entertainment value of these respective games.

LaBute's chief game is to make the gradual unmasking of Chad, played to cunning, noxious and vaguely psychopathic perfection by Aaron Eckhart, occur as slowly but gracefully as possible. There is a side to Chad that is doubtless seductive; he occasionally briefly wins the viewer over with his aplomb, and his superficial charms. The chief reason he may sometimes attract our favor is that we have been conditioned what to expect from films with these kinds of films--ones in which an ostensible cad, Chad, learns from his sins and finally changes his ways. That's the second game of the film: Chad's. Chad thinks up an idea to exorcise the two guys' woman problems: Now that they're in a small, unnamed city on work for six weeks (the film was shot in Ft. Wayne, Indiana), they must find a helpless woman, both approach her and date her and after the six weeks, break her heart. "Women. Nice ones, the most frigid of the race, it doesn't matter in the end. Inside they're all the same meat and gristle and hatred just simmering," Chad declares without the least bit of jocoseness.

That helpless woman is a deaf lady who works in the office block named Christine (Stacy Edwards). She's first spotted by Chad, who informs Howard of her existence. As Chad and Howard excel at their trickery and the game continues, one week after another, the film's tone becomes increasingly bitter but somber as LaBute lets there be no question about where he stands. In the Company of Men depicts repellent misogyny but it is not a misogynistic film.

Eckhart's performance is so captivating that his character's act of charm and sensitivity is all the more infuriating. When he asks Christine at lunch, "You feel this could be a relationship, right?" the temptation to vomit is considerable. That's the bravery of the film. Chad never learns his lesson, never becomes a better person. What's most revelatory about In the Company of Men is that it takes itself completely seriously and never even thinks about copping out. Chad's sociopathic outlook doesn't soften; if anything, he seems to go against almost all other male schemers in films with the generic label "comedy": he becomes worse and worse, until finally he's simply monstrous. Chad is a deliberately, finely constructed creature of unflinching loathing, a pathological liar whose emotional cruelty is only equaled by his limitless arrogance.

LaBute's dialogue may owe something to David Mamet, as does the corrupt workplace environment, which feels at least partly borrowed from Glengarry Glen Ross. However, LaBute does put some new spins on it, especially when writing for Howard and Christine. Of all of the attributes of the film, the pacing is probably its greatest strength. There is a definitive beginning, middle and end, with particularly well-molded prologues and epilogues. In the Company of Men's milieu is a kind of sickly banality, which is reinforced by LaBute's deceptively inert blocking and compositions. (Being a first-time filmmaker, this was very likely just a happy accident.)

In the Company of Men portrays two horrible fellows--one, a ruthless sociopath, the other a spineless, insecure schmuck--who do a horrible thing. Some have complained that Christine is portrayed to be too much of an angel of sorts, but this seems more like an assumption. And Christine's "choice" between the two--the handsomer man, attractive and remotely suave while being only superficially sweet and charming--doesn't inspire a terrible deal of confidence. What some critics (mainly men, but be that as it may) seem to think is excessively angelic behavior--being terribly sweet and charming, as well as being quite helpless--are actually characteristics of many women and are exactly what inspire Chad's decision that "she's perfect" for his callous plan.

In many ways, this is the perfect '90s film. It is a tale of two men representing the very worst certain male archetypes. In that happy-go-lucky decade of booming economic numbers and unaccountable businessmen making a killing through lies and distortions, matters of ethicality and propriety seemed to wane in import. The '00s have been just as morally dubious, but clouds of fear and anxiety have darkened the proceedings considerably. This is not to buy into the late Reverend Fallwell's belief that 9/11 was some sort of consequence of American amorality-- that God hid His face from us like ancient Israelites after a period of worshipping a golden calf. It's merely an approximation of the unserious, everyday turpitude of a certain era. The '80s may have been the decade of greed, when it was discovered that "greed" was "good" but the '90s were the decade of the wink and the smirk. This film arguably best exhibits this. And, as such, it ends remarkably perfectly. The unfeeling sociopath gets a blowjob at one in the morning, and the schmuck suffering from a wrecked conscience looks like a raving, mad lunatic.

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