Slippery Creatures

Your Friends & Neighbors, Neil LaBute's follow-up to last summer's cleverest horror film, In the Company of Men, is comparably creeped out and claustrophobic--a fascinatingly mean-spirited erotic comedy set in a realm of self-absorbed fantasy and overdetermined intergender misunderstanding.

Venturing into territory where no modern sitcom is yet prepared to go, although not far from the spot where In the Company of Men left off, Your Friends & Neighbors begins with a flurry of trompe l'oeil nastiness: A sexual athlete rehearses his pillow talk with the help of a tape recorder, a randy professor demonstrates for his students that Restoration comedy is "always about fucking." So, too, LaBute's movie--except that, as subsequent vignettes make abundantly clear, fucking is always about power, failure, and humiliation.

Jerry the drama prof (Ben Stiller) learns that lesson soon enough when his significant other Terri, (Catherine Keener), puts a damper on his verbose lovemaking by asking him to shut up: "This is not a travelogue." (The acerbic Keener has the bitchiest lines in the movie: "Fucking is fucking, it's not a time for sharing," she'll later tell a group of women friends.) Cut from miserable couple A to their friends, miserable couple B. Barry (Aaron Eckhart) fails to respond to his wife Mary (Amy Brenneman)--or is it Mary not responding to Barry, who later tells some guy at work that "nobody makes me come like I do."

Details

Your Friends & Neighbors
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
A Gramercy Pictures release
Opens August 21

The Eel
Written and directed by Shohei Imamura, from the novel Sparkles in the Darkness, by Akira Yoshimura
A New Yorker Films release
At the Lincoln Plaza
Opens August 21

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Although predicated largely on such one-liners, Your Friends & Neighbors develops a narrative when, with Jerry and Terri enjoying a somewhat strained dinner chez Barry and Mary, Jerry takes advantage of an opportune moment to sexually proposition his hostess. Despite Jerry and Mary's fantasies of self-improvement ("I'm very optimistic," he tells her as they check into a hotel), adultery proves just as awkward and unsatisfying as every other human relationship in LaBute's movie-- although it does set off a realignment of the stars.

Doubling the triangle at the heart of Company of Men, Friends & Neighbors is enlivened by its ensemble acting. Ben Stiller--the most fearless comic performer in American movies--adds another portrait to his gallery of off-putting neurotics. Stiller's combination of lewd monkey-man and overanalytical nerd draws sparks from both the always estimable Catherine Keener--herself oscillating between cajoling vixen and vicious cojones breaker--and winsome Amy Brenneman, whose Mary is usually a few beats behind the others. Aaron Eckhart, the diabolical seducer of In the Company of Men, is punished for his earlier sins--appearing here as a pitiful zhlub--while Jason Patric, who coproduced the picture, handles not only the role of an unsympathetic bully but an ostentatiously daring soliloquy.

A sour La Ronde of chance meetings and symmetrical repetitions, Friends & Neighbors progresses through a series of one-on-one come-ons, trysts, and scenes in which characters confront their unfaithful partners, typically picking a supermarket aisle as the place for a domestic squabble. ("I tried to at least fuck outside our calling circle," is one memorable reproach.) As in his first feature, LaBute eschews exteriors and establishing shots. The framing is precise, the editing minimalized, the setups recurring. Each of the principals has an opportunity to meet the gorgeous gallery assistant Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) in situ. But, if Friends & Neighbors feels less formally worked out--as well as less politically astute--than the ruthlessly constructed Company of Men, it may be that LaBute took advantage of his first feature's success to dust off an earlier script.

Trapped in LaBute's Skinner box, the characters are condemned to repeat their behavioral patterns while metaphors are piled on innuendos and erotic intrigue corkscrews through the most innocuous interaction. What circle of hell do these lying, manipulating characters inhabit? (Or is hell their relationships with withholding, belittling, depressed partners?) Designed to make the viewer squirm, Your Friends & Neighbors is more than a little funny, and a good deal more misanthropic than even In the Company of Men. I doubt we'll see acrueler sex comedy until Todd Solondz's Happiness opens this fall. Although frequently compared to David Mamet, LaBute's is a distinctive sensibility, at once antisensual and lascivious, as punitive as it is provocative.

Perhaps the movie is not apolitical after all. Although the six characters don't have to go very far in search of their author, LaBute doesn't have the generosity to identify them as "our friends and neighbors," let alone the guts to call them his. There's a giddy sense of puritan revenge--as though the filmmaker's dream audience would be watching these antics from the stocks.

A less negative but even more extreme vision of the human sexual response may be gleaned from The Eel, Japanese master Shohei Imamura's first film in eight years (and the movie that shared the Palme d'Or with Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival).

Violence is not verbal, nor sex consensual, in Imamura's films--his wildly sensationalist oeuvre is populated by a raunchy assortment of killers, prostitutes, and pornographers. ("I am interested in the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure" is the one-sentence manifesto that emblazons the Cinematheque Ontario's recent monograph on his work.) The Eel's pre-title prologue is a movie in itself. Tipped off by an anonymous letter, the innocuous salaryman Takuro--played by Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance?--returns home early from an all-night fishing trip and, catching his wife in flagrante, stabs her to death. The credits come up as Takuro bicycles to the police station to turn himself in.

Eight years later, the wife-killer is paroled from prison, along with his pet eel--a symbol so blatant, and so quintessentially Imamura, that it soon becomes thoroughly defamiliarized. ("He listens to what I say--he doesn't say what I don't want to hear," is how Takuro explains his attachment to the creature.) Having trained as a barber while in jail, Takuro sets up shop in some obscure corner of Japan with his eel installed in a prominent fish tank. Takuro doesn't care much for human contact but, this being an Imamura film, his eccentricities scarcely set him apart from the rest of the species. His parole officer is a ridiculously understanding Buddhist priest; his nearest neighbor is engaged in constructing a six-pointed star with jerry-built flashing lights in the hopes of attracting a visitor from outer space.

Despite occasional shots from inside the fish tank, The Eel is more staid--and even more tentative--than the 70-year-old director's vintage films. Still, the mood-shifting narrative line is adroitly handled. As slippery as its namesake, the movie starts like a thriller, settles into what might be an elaborate purification ritual, then--once Takuro has almost grudgingly saved the life of Keiki, a would-be suicide who resembles his murdered wife (and is played by the same actress)--blossoms into a sort of wistful romance. As obvious a symbol as the eel, Keiki's embodiment of Takuro's second chance appoints herself, against his wishes, as helpmeet--and thus, under the influence of their respective pasts, pushes the plot toward melodrama.

Ferocious yet gentle, its tone shifting once more to gangster drama and then black comedy, The Eel concludes with a lunatic yet symmetrical turn of events that culminates in an unexpectedly hallucinatory and touching ending. Ultimately, The Eel is the unconscious made tangible. Takuro becomes the eel and, in becoming the eel, he sets it free. This simple, sinuous fable may not be among Imamura's greatest films--it lacks the crazy libidinal energy of The Pornographersor Eijanaika--but it could hardly have been made by anyone else.

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