From its title, you might think "Your Friends & Neighbors" is a friendly, neighborly kind of movie. But you'll know better if you saw Neil LaBute's previous picture, "In the Company of Men," one of last year's most talked-about independent films.
The clue to his new drama is in the ampersand between "friends" and "neighbors," as if this were an advertising slogan or a listing in the classified ads. Old-fashioned human relations don't interest LaBute much. What he wants to probe are the self-centered interconnections that sprout between people in a commercialized, commodified, endlessly competitive society.
LaBute is an equal-opportunity cynic, so he aims his scathingly satirical vision at Generation X in general, without narrowing his attacks to a particular place or profession. The city where his story takes place is never identified, and even the names of his characters are left unspoken.
This contributes to what LaBute calls a "distancing effect," meant to give the movie a sense of objective truthfulness. Audiences can judge the success of this strategy by deciding whether the story is a convincing expos or a sensationalistic diatribe.
The main characters are a half dozen young urbanites who hook one another into a complicated web of friendship, romance, rivalry, deception, and betrayal. On the surface they're everyday friends and neighbors. Just below the surface, so close you can sense it by peering into their eyes, they're preoccupied with their own lowdown lusts, and with the tactics they can deploy - from locker-room gossiping to lying, cheating, and stealing - to satisfy their latest impulses. Needless to say, barriers like marriage, camaraderie, and commitment count for just about nothing in this environment.
Except that it has twice as many characters, "Your Friends & Neighbors" concocts the same sort of atmosphere LaBute gave to "In the Company of Men," about two businessmen who heap emotional abuse on a deaf secretary as revenge against the women they feel have wronged them over the years. Both movies are flawed by LaBute's sledgehammer approach.
The mood is often more coarse, crude, and nasty than needed to make his cautionary points and also by that "distancing effect," which diminishes whatever feelings of empathy or sympathy the story might otherwise inspire in its audience.
"Your Friends & Neighbors" has the indie version of a dream cast - Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Aaron Eckhart, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric, and Nastassja Kinski - and Nancy Schreiber's camera work gives the picture more visual life than "In the Company of Men" contained. The music score consists largely of Metallica songs performed by Apocalyptica, suiting the picture's overall tone to perfection.
* Rated R; contains a strongly sexualized atmosphere including extremely graphic dialogue about sex and sexual violence. David Sterritt's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org