For the sake of argument, let’s agree that the Neil LaBute narrative unfolds like this: the provocative playwright turned filmmaker stormed the indie world in 1997 with his disturbing, brusque and scathing critique of the male psyche “In The Company of Men.” LaBute’s controversial, piquant, sometimes pungent plays and films continued along a purposefully challenging and similar path — often about the battle of the sexes with a deeply cynical mind — until the mid aughts when he attempted to go in a new direction: 2006 brought his gonzo and much-reviled remake of “The Wicker Man,” 2008 saw a racially charged thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson (“Lakeview Terrace“) and 2010 saw an African-American-centered remake of the British comedy “Death at a Funeral.” While LaBute had already experimented with directing material he had not written (“Nurse Betty,” “Possession”), this latter period lacked focus and arguably dissolved away at the auteurial stamp making for anonymous works.
Not as well-received as his early works, LaBute’s admitted he simply wanted to try new things (and also perhaps stretched himself too thin) and the filmmaker can hardly be faulted for that. This brings us to 2013, a year that delivers two Neil LaBute works, the first in three years. “Some Velvet Morning,” his dodgy (and rather toxic) look at relationships and role-playing arrived earlier this year and the second, “Some Girl(s)” is available now in select theaters and through Vimeo.
Directed by Daisy von Scherler (1995’s “Party Girl” with Parker Posey). “Some Girl(s)” is nonetheless screen written by Neil LaBute, based on one of his earlier plays, and feels very much like a LaBute-ian effort right down to its provocative approach and cruel, self-absorbed, shallow male antagonist. Adam Brody stars as an unnamed writer whose taking stock of his life. Soon-to-be-married and feeling guilty about past relationship transgressions, he embarks on a cross-country trip to ostensibly to make amends. This is a man revisiting the ghosts of girlfriends past. But unlike, say LaBute’s ruthlessly clear asshole characters (Aaron Eckhart‘s Chad in “In The Company Of Men” for example), Brody’s writer is earnest and well-meaning, but deeply narcissistic and thoughtless. He’s actually therefore much, much worse than Chad — an ostensibly benign “nice guy” who may have paved the road to hell with his good intentions.
Essentially a collection of different vignettes in hotel rooms, “Some Girl(s)” is demarcated by its title cards: the names of each girlfriend. There’s his high school sweetheart Sam in Seattle (Jennifer Morrison), the mom who thinks she’s about to have an illicit tryst only to discover she having prom night drudged up again for some reason; Tyler In Chicago (Mía Maestro) who essentially just wants to fuck until she learns she was second best; Lindsay (Emily Watson), an elder paramour and ex-professor shamed when their affair became public to the Boston college, plus Reggie (Zoe Kazan) and Bobbi (Kristen Bell).
One of the film’s main problems is how inherently shallow Brody’s endeavor is: revisiting ex-girlfriends to make amends? Seriously? How fucking old are you? What kind of vain asshole are you exactly? Of course, that’s the point; a sharp, critique of the ineffectual pseudo nice guy who’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing trying to examine and make sense of his past at the expense of others before he goes on his “journey” to get married. But as the movie reveals itself and becomes more and more manipulative, it starts to take on darker edge that’s loathsome, but also kind of deliciously evil and funny.
Of course, there’s half the problem. A would-be satirical dramedy, “Some Girl(s)” is almost entirely never funny until the big reveal in the end (yes, like “Some Velvet Morning,” twist endings are apparently LaBute’s new thing) and by then it’s far too late (though its subtle barbs at the leech-like nature of fiction writers’ predisposition to rape their personal history – and those who have come in its orbit – is admittedly on point). Up until that point, “Some Girl(s)” is a collection of disparate scenes with one of the most vapid, insipid, shallow shitheads you’ve ever met and the various women who have to tolerate him and his pathetic, half-baked, not-really-well-thought-out apologies.
Vampiric in his use of these past relationships for his novels, Brody’s deplorably “sweet” sociopath goes from woman to woman pitifully asking for a kind of forgiveness and yet, never fully realizing the damage he left in the wake of his chronic last-minute escapes from each relationship when things went South. “Some Girl(s)” plods along with this same formula, but begins to awake in its third act when Brody returns to Seattle to meet Reggie (Kazan), the younger sibling of a best friend in high school. In these sequences, the film finally begins to try and crucify the writer for his various crimes and only then do its fangs begin to truly show some worthwhile bite. Likewise in its final section in L.A., Bobbi (Bell), an ex who could have been “the one,” takes Brody to task so brutally that glimmers of self-recognition begin to burst in the egomaniac psyche.
Of course, the movie is then upended by its M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist, a “ta-daa!”-like surprise that’s both cruelly funny, but ultimately hollow (and leaves no room for repeat viewings). Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s stagey direction doesn’t do the movie any favors (though truthfully, she doesn’t have much to work with) and the upbeat indie pop songs that break up each vignette are wryly chosen given that they’re all intentionally, cheerfully punch-in-the-face worthy. Acerbic and purposefully vile, LaBute’s story is clearly self-aware of its various cruel manipulations of character and audience, but the formula itself — taken from his early modus operandi — is simply becoming more and more rote. What once were searing treatises on men, women, relationships and the various toxicities that exist between selfish, shitty, desperate characters, appear — much like the film’s protagonist — just a little sad and pathetic. [D+]