Is it any surprise that a woman stares down a man and shouts “Why would you do this to me?” within the first 15 minutes of Some Girl(s), a reasonably engaging indie drama based on a Neil LaBute play?
Now that the hegemony is starting to give, a little, maybe it’s worth giving a fresh look to the work of the playwright/filmmaker/gender-war field marshal whose plays and films, both the good ones and the cock-ups, have taken on a rep as being, let’s say, “problematic” in their view of women.
There was the one where the two bros set out to revenge themselves on all women, an idea that was funny when Merle Haggard sang “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” in ’71 but unsettling to see dramatized in the Clinton era. There’s the one where the nice nebbish endures the world’s most humiliating break-up at the hands of a gorgeous, lunatic grad student whose life is some scolding, anti-male art project. And then there’s the director-for-hire job where the honey-harvesting she-monsters of Evil Bitch Island blind Nic Cage with bumblebees.
It doesn’t take pattern-recognition software to catch some shared, troubling concerns here. But the charitable viewer will remember that ugly themes aren’t necessarily a thesis. Instead, what LaBute has long seemed to me to be dramatizing is something more urgent than high-end misogyny—maybe his subject isn’t the awfulness of women, but the anxieties awful men feel about women.
Whether that distinction matters, I leave to you. It helps that in Some Girl(s), as Your Friends and Neighbors, the awfulness of the men is beyond question, although here its exact degree is held for the final reveal. This is one of those movies you would know was based on a play even if you had never heard of LaBute. Adam Brody stars as guy called Guy—seriously!—who arranges meetings in hotel rooms with four of his exes, each in a different city, and each someone he hurt. He attempts to achieve some resolution with each, with the mixed results you might expect: One is broken and obsessed with their long-ago split; one attempts to seduce him; one (played by Kristen Bell) says, during a too-long pause, “This is not one of those moments where I’m really hoping that you’ll kiss me, OK?” (Bell also shouts, gamely, some of-the-stage nonsense like “Oppenheimer meant well! Pol Pot meant well!”)
Most memorably, the ex played by Zoe Kazan delivers a devastating speech about having been too young for him that I hope young actresses are using as an audition piece. Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer, who favors a restrained naturalism, imbues this long moment with dread and power.
Guy is touring his past, he claims, because he’s getting married soon. But he’s also a writer who has used some of these romances in an impossible-sounding New Yorker piece titled “The Calculus of Desire.” “Vampiric, cannibalistic,” says the ex played by Emily Watson. Tweedy hunk Brody, tasked with keeping too many secrets, is only slightly more responsive than Watson’s equine co-star in Warhorse. Since the plot demands Guy not reveal much, the scenes belong to the women, most of whom score with LaBute’s bristling dialogue—although even Watson can’t make “The prodigal son returns,” her opening line, sound human. It’s a showcase of theatrical dressing-downs, only hampered by the contrivance that keeps Guy from truly fighting back—the airing of grievances rarely explodes into the ferocious squabbling of Your Friends and Neighbors.
A final twist stamps this as a companion or corrective to The Shape of Things, this time with the man as the monster. This isn’t as bracing as that film, but it’s far from the horror show LaBute’s detractors often accuse him of writing. A voice like his is more necessary than they may admit: Since there are guys out there as awful as Neil LaBute characters, it’s not a bad thing to have a Neil LaBute taxonomizing them.