Neil LaBute aims at the angst and entitlement of yuppies like a kid with a magnifying glass, torturing ants. He writes and directs comedies where you’re not really laughing: you’re choking on your own discomfort as he pokes and prods the sexual crises of the bored, the rich, the spoiled, the middle-classed. Which is to say many of us.
Cuckolds, man-babies and emotional eunuchs are some of the types you’ll encounter in LaBute’s films, which are brazenly, specifically about the facade of the American hegemony, and the fictions it is barely concealing. You’d never known from his savagely charming and scabrous comedies that LaBute is a lapsed Mormon who, before getting kicked out of the Church of LDS in the late-1990s for a deemed-to-be offensive off-Broadway play, started at Brigham Young, where he met one of his earliest screen co-conspirators, actor Aaron Eckhart.
In LaBute’s cruelly funny film debut “In the Company of Men” (1997) — lifted from one of his own stage works — Eckhart plays a macho, manipulative middle management head who, shuttled to a Midwestern branch office, along with his sad-sack colleague Howard (played by Matt Malloy) plots a malicious scheme to seduce and destroy a female subordinate (Stacey Edwards) who is deaf.
The film unfolds as a series of long, fixed takes — with an abrasive soundtrack, and more than one horrifying sex act puncturing the deadpan climate — as Chad and Howard court Christine, who is hopelessly unaware of their plans until she’s not. punctures the deadpan climate
Eckhart’s Chad is a sort of handsome “American Psycho” figure, but skip the soul. He’s blond-headed, affable, all-American sociopath who woos his target and then crushes her because that’s what women do to men, right? Meanwhile, Chad’s wicked game turns Howard, who at first elicits our pity, into a simpering, sweaty creep when he falls for Christine, frantically pops the question roadside after she dumps him, and then attacks her, screaming, “Look at you! You are fucking handicapped! You think you can choose? Men falling at your feet?”
LaBute keeps the audience far away, positioning us as if behind the double-sided mirror of an operating theater, where we’re watching him torment insects. “In the Company of Men” is Michael Haneke Goes to the American Midwest in that it makes damn sure you leave feeling dirty, lost.
He followed “In the Company of Men” with an even colder sex satire, “Your Friends and Neighbors” (1998), a literary-minded, urban-set, psychosexual musical-chairs that plunges the fissures of two couples — Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman and Aaron Eckhart — a la Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge.” These are theater instructors and writers who’ve dried out. Then, two third wheels, played by Jason Patric and Nastassja Kinski, come into the picture, interloping their social circle and making havoc of their sex lives.
Every performance scorches in this acid pleasure, including Patric as a woman-hating gynecologist who opens and closes the film like a very-very-NSFW Greek Chorus. Ben Stiller is convincingly gross as both cuckold and adulterer, and as his nonplussed mistress Amy Brenneman evokes the quiet desperation of a woman who married granola (Eckhart) but wanted more. Keener, squarely in her golden late-1990s run, all husky-voiced, has the fuck-it-all attitude of a woman who is Over It.
Another trademark of Neil LaBute is that the men never come out looking good. Where the misogyny of “In the Company of Men” was really a male critique, the women suffer just as much in “Your Friends and Neighbors” but ultimately have the power. “Your Friends” has the color and feel of a 1990s mid-budget romantic comedy for adults, evoking the amorously chatty switcharoos of a Woody Allen picture. But LaBute manages to locate something more hostile and ghoulish in the yuppie American bedroom.
He directed but did not write his next film, the quirky and sharp “Nurse Betty” starring Renee Zellweger as a widowed nurse who vanishes into a delusional obsession with a soap opera star after witnessing her husband’s murder. The Cannes-winning black comedy, which saw LaBute working on a bigger budget, briefly brought him into the mainstream before he went back into passion projects and occasional studio for-hire movies (“The Wicker Man,” “Lakeview Terrace”) while occasionally dipping back into familiarly dark indie territory (“Some Velvet Morning”).
LaBute’s last great film, I’d argue, was “The Shape of Things” (2003), the incisive and underrated film version of his play that features the original stage cast members Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz and Gretchen Mol.
This feminist comedy reverses the gender checkmating at play “In the Company of Men.” Weisz plays an art grad student named Evelyn who contrives for herself a faux-bohemian, almost manic-pixie-dream-girl-like personality, with knit cap, fur jacket and headphones around the neck. She uses this persona to charm a nerdy English major, Adam, played by Paul Rudd, into a date after defaming a statue in a museum.
But she’s a conniving siren who cajoles Adam, like a pet, into participating in her sick game of what is basically psychological “What Not to Wear,” remaking him physically with contact lenses and a nose job, and editing his opinions about art, as in a memorable scene where he disagrees with her take on a pretentious art piece about menstruation.
The movie’s punchline arrives as a joke more twisted than even the male power-jockeying of “In the Company of Men” as Evelyn channels her misandry into an admirably plotted, multimedia art project as clever as the very best work of Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl.”
What “The Shape of Things” lacks in visual style it replenishes with the sort of vitriol-spiked, punchy prose that made “In the Company” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” seminal independent films of the 1990s. Together, they’re a trilogy of misanthropy, clearly written by a younger, angrier man who has since shed his harshness.