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by: Michael Dequina

Your Friends & Neighbors, writer-director Neil LaBute's follow-up to his incendiary debut, In the Company of Men, does not have the sensational "men are monsters" hook of the previous film, but it is every bit as caustic--and the effect is nearly as fascinating. This "modern immorality tale," as the ads state, is a scathing, brutally funny, and ultimately disturbing satire of sexual and social mores.

The six central characters' names rhyme: Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary, and Jerry. But any point to this bit of cutesy preciousness is moot, for the characters' names (or, for that matter, the city name) are never spoken throughout the entire film, adding a discomforting intimacy--it's as if we, the audience, are witnessing our "friends" and "neighbors." Why the quotes? Because while these six interact within the same overlapping households and social circles under the guise of friendship, what they do is distinctly unneighborly. Amy Brenneman and Aaron Eckhart's characters are unhappily married; he isn't getting the job done in bed, and he'd much rather pleasure himself, anyway. Brenneman (since the character names assigned in the end credits are never used, neither will I) seeks something "different" in the arms of one of Eckhart's best "friends", Ben Stiller, who himself is having trouble with his live-in girlfriend, the "unfeminine" Catherine Keener. So it is not terribly surprising when Keener, who hates Stiller's habit of talking during the act, seeks--and finds--silent sex with another woman, Nastassja Kinski. Kinski is an "artist's assistant" at a gallery that is visited at various points by nearly each individual member of the group, which is rounded out by the brash, egotistical, misogynistic Jason Patric.

It sounds like a mess, and it is; there's no rhythm or recognizable structure to the entire film, jumping between characters and situations in seemingly random fashion. Ironically, though, LaBute's fractured style heightens the reality of the events, which roughly assemble with the imperfect coherence of strung-together memories. Nonetheless, the jumble is jarring, but the rough mosaic is made consistently engrossing by LaBute's acidly comic dialogue, the intriguingly amoral (and well-rounded) characters, and the crack acting ensemble.

The clear standout in the cast is Patric. While his character is an even more extreme version of Eckhart's notorious Chad in Men, Patric's earnestness prevents him from becoming a complete cartoon--which makes him more all the more frightening. Speaking of Eckhart, he is barely recognizable here--and completely convincing--as slick, confident Chad's complete opposite: fat, unkempt, and completely emasculated. Brenneman may betray her husband, but she makes the audience never lose sight of the purehearted loneliness that drives her character to act in such a way; the same, but to a lesser degree, goes for Keener, whose character is much harder around the edges; and Stiller. If one character remains a cipher, it is Kinski's, who is mainly seen as an aloof object of desire (she is, however, given some emotional gumption in her final scene).

As funny as Your Friends & Neighbors often is, I wouldn't exactly call it an entertaining film. As surreally exaggerated as some of the characters and situations appear to be, the emotional fallout is painfully genuine. Long after the film is over, you may find yourself in deep discussion about Your Friends & Neighbors with your friends and neighbors--at least, those whom you believe to be your friends and neighbors.

RATING: **** 1/2 (out of *****)


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