In college, I devised a ratio called the Anal Magnitude Theory to
explain a fundamental principle of dating: The bigger an asshole a guy
seemed to be, the more women he seemed to attract. As time went on, the AMT
was invoked to solve many of life's mysteries. It explained why the guy who
made my skin crawl was driving a Mercedes. It explained why the biggest
jerks I knew always ended up in management positions.
Even at my most paranoid, though, I never thought suave preppie bastards
were as all-powerful as Neil LaBute does. LaBute's first film as writer and
director, In the Company of Men, is a scathing satire meant to
indict macho corporate climbers as sexist, racist monsters. Two junior
executives are dispatched to a company outpost in a drab Midwestern burgh
for six weeks. The two men's talk turns to the various ways they've been
screwed over: by life, by bosses, by women. The more assured of the two,
Chad (Aaron Eckhart), proposes a game to get revenge. The first woman they
see, they'll woo, seduce, and bedazzle. When she falls in love, he and his
buddy Howard (Matt Malloy) will crush her.
LaBute deliberately leaves the characters vague because we're meant to
be see Chad and Howard as symbolic--as the rotten apples that represent the
poisonous tree. And even though he doesn't name his company town, it's
recognizable enough: It resides somewhere between Mametville, U.S.A., and
the Pinterlands, where the business world is the unhappy hunting ground of
imperiled masculinity, and men speak either in jabbing, hostile riffage or
in ominous code. Just in case we miss how cruel Chad and Howard's game
really is, they've been handed a doubly heartbreaking victim: a deaf
typist, Christine (played beautifully by Stacy Edwards), who's twice as
vulnerable--thereby making her tormentors twice as vicious.
The trouble is that once the situation and the characters have been
introduced, the movie never deviates a footstep from LaBute's narrow path.
The plot against Christine is like one of those impossible cinematic bank
heists that works only if every detail happens exactly as planned--and
locks and tumblers are a whole lot more reliable than the whims of the
heart. For LaBute's setup to work, Chad must be infallible, irresistible,
and omniscient, and Christine must be absolutely clueless. I think the
director believes he's making a movie sympathetic to women--he clearly
hates his antiheroes and likes his victim--but in his dim conception men
are invincible manipulators and women are powerless to resist. I'm not
saying guys are incapable of hatching something this cold-blooded; I just
don't buy that it all works out this smoothly.
Nor do I buy how self-consciously evil LaBute's men are. The director is
constantly inflating their believably swinish behavior to unbelievable
excess, the better to score points off of them. It's one thing to have Chad
mock the speech of an African-American subordinate, a subtle and
effectively creepy moment; it's another thing to have Chad order the man a
moment later to drop his drawers. That wouldn't even happen at Texaco.
LaBute even revives the old feminist gag about the difference between a
golf ball and a clitoris--a man'll spend 20 minutes looking for a golf
ball--only he puts the punch line in Chad's mouth and changes it to first
person. Why would this arrogant stud tell a joke about his sexual
ineptitude? To make him look even more boorish--and to score an extra laugh
off that boorishness.
Neil LaBute has a lot of talent: It's evident in his spot-on parodies of
corporate back-stabbing, in which any person who leaves the room is an
instant target. Individual scenes are striking, particularly the one in
which Howard does something rather honorable for entirely vindictive
reasons; and the acting by the three leads is quite good--especially by
Stacy Edwards and by Aaron Eckhart, who's hatefully effective as Chad.
LaBute even finesses his minuscule budget with coolly clinical camera
setups and long takes.
But at the end, after the director sprang his one nasty surprise, I felt
as if I'd spent 90 minutes watching the Reefer Madness of
institutionalized machismo. By that time, LaBute's resentment of Chad is so
hysterical that it starts to look like envy--something our last view of
Chad only drives home. The Anal Magnitude Theory may work as a salve for
life's inequities, but In the Company of Men proves it's a pretty
wobbly basis for art.