In the Company of Men

Nashville Scene


REVIEWED: 09-29-97

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.

--Jim Ridley

Full Length Reviews
In the Company of Men
In the Company of Men
In the Company of Men
In the Company of Men

Capsule Reviews
In the Company of Men
In the Company of Men
In the Company of Men

Other Films by Neil LaBute
Your Friends and Neighbors

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