Friday August 1, 1997
Writer-director Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" is a one-trick pony, a movie that has a gift only for making audiences squirm. Something of an accomplishment, no doubt, in this blase age, but not satisfying enough to base an entire film on.
It's not that the pair of corporate executives who seethe with resentment toward women and hatch a cynical, sadistic plan to wreck revenge on a vulnerable member of the opposite sex don't have a basis in reality. But while men acting monstrously can cause considerable havoc both on and off screen, the spectacle is not dramatically involving in and of itself.
Bad behavior doesn't have to be soft-pedaled to capture our interest, but it does need to be illuminated and dissected, not merely presented. While no film character has been a more vicious misogynist than David Thewlis' blistering, abrasive Johnny, the protagonist of Mike Leigh's "Naked," that film enabled us to experience his character in completely unexpected ways.
There is hardly anything surprising, by contrast, about the way "In the Company of Men" unfolds, and the only thing that changes in our attitude toward its males is a steady increase in the level of revulsion they inspire.
Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) are two white-collar executives, employees of a nameless corporation headed for a six-week assignment in an anonymous town. Howard is the senior of the pair, but he is a mousy, timid soul with none of the confidence of the brash and preening Chad, an arrogant type given to expressions such as "As a race, men like us are doomed" and "Life is for the taking, is it not?"
One thing these two do have in common is problems with women. When Howard reveals he's been dumped by his girlfriend, Chad says his has left him as well. Working himself up to a fine rage, Chad decides it's payback time for all the pain of relationships. "Let's hurt somebody," he says to Howard, and he reveals a plan.
The idea is to find a woman, "vulnerable as hell, a wallflower type who felt romance was lost to her forever." Both Chad and Howard would simultaneously hit on her, making her believe she was the love of their lives, and then coldly tell her the truth before leaving town. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week," Chad gloats, "and you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men."
Howard reluctantly agrees, and Chad almost immediately spots Christine (Stacy Edwards), his idea of the ideal victim. Deaf since the age of 8, Christine is a typist who keeps to herself and speaks with difficulty. "She has a voice like a dolphin. It's like having a chat with Flipper," Chad exults, adding with typical mean glee, "She's one of the kindest people I've ever had spray spit in my face."
Broken up into segments, one for each of the weeks Chad and Howard are out of town, "In the Company of Men" details what happens when these men put their scheme into operation, plus the difficulties that simultaneously begin to crop up on the business side of their lives.
It's not a pleasant picture for any number of reasons, mainly because Chad is so off-putting a character. A bully and a liar, a master game player and manipulator who we watch casually crushing a young co-worker (Jason Dixie), Chad's practiced humiliation stance has none of the fascination of memorable double-dealers like Robert Mitchum's Love/Hate preacher in "Night of the Hunter." We simply want to be free of his presence as quickly as possible.
Ironically, given that it prides itself on its toughness, "In the Company of Men" would be more painful (and more honest) if it were as nervy as it pretends. For the film pulls its punches by casting Edwards, a quite attractive actress whose vocal problems (learned for the film) are not that troublesome. The kind of victim Chad says he's after would be much more woebegone, but that kind of truth is out of this film's range of possibility.
Well-received at Sundance, "In the Company of Men" has a share of virtues. It's convincingly acted, and writer-director LaBute has a gift for a certain kind of comic-scabrous dialogue as well as a sure idea of what he wants to accomplish. Yet as shrewdly put together as this film is, it's hard to shake the feeling that what we're watching is a well-made psychological snuff film. If that's your preference, you know where to find it.
In the Company of Men, 1997. R, for language and emotional abuse. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Neil LaBute. Producers Mark Archer, Stephen Pevner. Executive producers Toby Gaff, Mark Hart, Matt Malloy. Screenplay Neil LaBute. Cinematographer Tony Hettinger. Editor Joel Plotch. Music Ken Williams, Karel Roessingn. Production design Julia Henkel. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Aaron Eckhart as Chad. Stacy Edwards as Christine. Matt Malloy as Howard.