The Scandinavians have Lars Von Trier, and Americans may boast Harmony Korine as our enfante terrible, but writer/director Neil LaBute is still unquestionably America’s premier big screen provocateur. Over the years, he’s poked, prodded and challenged audiences with many confrontational and discomfiting topics both in film and on the stage, tackling misogyny and sexism (“In The Company Of Men”), obesity/female body issues (the stage play “Fat Pig”), the duplicity of the art world and calculating females (“The Shape Of Things”), post 9/11 fallout (“The Mercy Seat”) and the repercussions of an interracial love triangle (“This Is How It Goes,” “Lakeview Terrace”).
LaBute functions like a portrait artist of nasty, vicious human behavior, deceitful psychologies and devious assholes —his worldview is often deeply cynical, presenting the unpleasant aspects of human nature. Nearly once a year, he turns out a new work that’s sharp, funny, observational and indeed often mean-spirited. But what many critics tend to overlook is his devilish and wry sense of humor behind even the most twisted characters and their often revolting choices.
But a gentler, even sweet LaBute emerges for “Dirty Weekend,” his tenth feature film. This comedy about sexual desire is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and continues the writer/director’s working relationship with Alice Eve and the thought-provoking examinations of our sometimes unusual sexual peccadilloes (she starred in the sexual role-playing movie “Some Velvet Morning,” one of LaBute’s best recent works).
“Dirty Weekend” starts off much tamer than it sounds; two co-workers from Los Angeles are on their way to Dallas for a business conference and get stranded in an Albuquerque airport due to inclement weather. Les (Matthew Broderick) is an uptight family man agitated about their situation and Natalie (Alice Eve) is his more assiduous but more mysterious British colleague.
Restless and stressed, Les clearly has something on his mind, which Natalie soon ferrets out to be a secret: a drunken affair he had in Albuquerque months ago which he can only vaguely remember. Natalie has her own secrets, including more taboo elements to her lesbian relationship than she lets on. As Les tries to unravel the mystery of his recent indiscretions —which may or may not have had transgressive, possible homosexual dimensions, which worry him to no end— Natalie also opens up about her own fears, desires and problems.
So LaBute’s two-hander is part buddy comedy and part temperate detective story on the surface, but the film is really about repression and examines sexual appetites, needs and how truthful people are about any latent or buried desires —who we are on the streets and who we may want to be in the sheets. On many levels, the movie bespeaks anal retention. The old Neil LaBute might have outwardly asked off the top “have you ever had a finger ‘accidentally’ stuck up your bum and liked it?”—cut to a scene of a man grappling with fear, confusion and pleasure— “and what does that mean about you?” “Dirty Weekend” essentially asks the same kind of questions, but delivers them in a much kinder manner. Natalie possesses a profusion of empathy, compassion and understanding, and the film’s closing moments feature perhaps the most tenderly emotional and affecting scene that LaBute has ever committed to celluloid.
Some may claim that “Dirty Weekend” is LaBute defanged, but it’s clearly a conscious choice to go in a softer direction. While some bite is missing, on some levels a less pungent experience is appreciated, if only for a change of pace. “Dirty Weekend” isn’t perfect: it can seem slight and its score sounds reminiscent of goofy music common to sitcoms. A taxi-driving character is also probably the broadest comic supporting character that LaBute has ever written, something you’d expect to see in a mainstream studio comedy.
But Broderick and Eve have an affectionate, convincing rapport, and develop a worthy relationship. Another movie would project sexual tension onto the pair, but LaBute knows better. Economically staged with long takes accentuating each actor’s performances, this lighthearted dramedy is theater-esque, like many of the director’s previous efforts. And while “Dirty Weekend” may not quite live up to its title and is certainly his least tart effort to date, the film’s milder flavor and less acidic aftertaste is mostly a pleasurable switchup. [B]
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