Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors opens with Jason Patric practicing pick-up lines on himself. Did I say "practicing"? I meant "using." A lethally handsome narcissist, Patric's Cary is always looking out for number one, and numbers two through whatever don't even qualify as people. They're bugs to be squished, whether male or female, lovers or strangers, friends or neighbors. Later in the movie, while hanging out in the sauna with his "friends" Barry (Aaron Eckhart) and Jerry (Ben Stiller), Cary will deliver a soliloquy--everything he says is, at heart, a soliloquy--on his favorite lay of all time. Now, I don't want to spoil it for you, but I will say that it's a miracle the guy managed to keep his ass out of prison. A pitch-black comedy that has the verse-and-chorus structure of a song, Your Friends & Neighbors puts the "lay" back in "roundelay." For we don't just get to know Cary and Barry and Jerry, we also get to know Mary (Amy Brenneman), Terri (Catherine Keener) and Cheri (Nastassja Kinski). "What, no Gary?" I jotted down in my notebook as the closing credits came and went. Luckily, LaBute isn't just interested in the way his characters' names rhyme. He's also interested in the way his characters' games rhyme--the games they play with one another and the games they play with themselves. And if women were the victims of those games in LaBute's first film, the maleficent In the Company of Men, here they give as well as they get. "Is there any chance you're going to shut the fuck up?" Keener's Terri says to Stiller's Jerry when he insists on adding color commentary to their lovemaking. Jerry, a drama professor, has the academic's annoying habit of analyzing everything, which will eventually drive Terri into the arms of Kinski's Cheri. Before that, Jerry tries to dive into the arms of Brenneman's Mary, the emotionally unsatisfied wife of his best friend Barry (Eckhart, who played a cad in Company of Men and plays a clod here). I could take you through the plot's various couplings and decouplings, but what's the point? Actually, the point is that there is no point. Despite their craving for carnal knowledge, LaBute's characters never learn anything. They're emotionally retarded. Perhaps LaBute is as well. Like Cary, he treats other people--i.e., the characters in his movies--like bugs. In fact, you can almost picture him holding a magnifying glass over them until the sun causes a curl of smoke to rise up from their sex-battered bodies. A Mormon from Fort Wayne, Ind., LaBute is less a prude than a scold: He gets off on telling his characters where to get off. And the movie might be too damn malicious if it weren't also funny--not knee-slapping funny but cheek-slapping funny. A devotee of cruel and unusual punishment, LaBute dares us to laugh and dares us not to. If the movie were a sitcom, it would have a gasp track. And yet, when you get right down to it, Your Friends & Neighbors isn't really all that shocking--or surprising, for that matter. There's nothing in it we haven't seen before in Carnal Knowledge or sex, lies & videotape or the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago or, hell, "Seinfeld." I remember I had to be told, halfway through the show's run, that the characters in "Seinfeld" were self-involved jerks. They seemed okay to me. Likewise, the characters in Your Friends & Neighbors seem more pathetic than repellent, not unlike my own dear friends and neighbors. LaBute may be shocked by them; he certainly wants to be shocked by them. But you get the distinct impression they wouldn't behave this badly if LaBute didn't force them to. As Woody Allen puts the finishing touches on Celebrity, which is due out in October, it might be instructive (and, you know, fun) to take a look at the films that turned him into a celebrity some 25 years ago. Westgate Cinema, now known as Westgate Art Cinema, has put together two weeks worth of early-to-mid Woody--although, as time rolls by, Annie Hall and Manhattan are starting to seem like late-early Woody instead of early-mid Woody. The man can't seem to stop making films, despite my reviews. But, if the movies themselves don't always add up, the career has taken on a fascination of its own. It's not hard to imagine cinephiles of the future digging Allen's oeuvre out of the vault and declaring it the work of un petit maitre--a minor master whom only the French, with their auteurist tendencies, can truly appreciate. It wasn't always that way. When Allen came out with 1971's Bananas and 1972's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), both of which are showing at Westgate this week, he was very much in tune with the time and place--the United States as it took a pratfall from the '60s into the '70s. Bananas, in which Allen's Fielding Mellish winds up president of a Latin American banana republic, is about as political as Allen has ever gotten, including a courtroom finale that drew comic inspiration from the Chicago Seven trial. And Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex took a topical bestseller by Dr. David Reuben and ripped it to shreds. The episode in which Gene Wilder, as a mild-mannered doctor, falls passionately in love with a sheep is a landmark in animal husbandry. It's been said many times that, in these early films, Allen only wanted to tell jokes--that he was nothing more than a Catskills comic with a movie camera. I don't think that does justice to the jokes, which, with their sophisticated wit and far-ranging targets, made Mel Brooks look like, well, Mel Brooks. A good physical comedian but a great metaphysical comedian, Allen joined the comic to the cosmic--e.g., the scene in Bananas where two monks bearing crosses fight over a parking space, finally coming to blows. And, of course, there was the Woody character, an ineffectual intellectual with a nose for trouble and an eye for the ladies. Groucho Marx and Bob Hope were the guiding spirits during this part of Allen's career--the lecherous anarchy of the former, the desperate cowardice of the latter. But Woody was also...Woody, sui generis. When Allen brought out Annie Hall (which is showing next week) and Manhattan (which is showing this week) during the late-'70s, it was as if a court jester had suddenly transformed himself into a prince. Allen had always poked fun at the meaninglessness of life, but these two films, though very funny, embodied the meaninglessness of life--our inability to sustain the relationships we build our lives around. We all know these films by heart, so I won't say very much about them. But it's important to remember that Interiors came out in 1978 and Stardust Memories came out in 1980. No sooner had Allen become a mature artist than he started knocking on Bergman and Fellini's doors--an esthetic wrong turn that led to many crashes and from which he's never really recovered.
But, as I said, a fascinating career, from low-brow to middle-brow to high-brow. And it's great to be able to see again, on the large screen they were designed for, the movies in which Allen's brow was as thick and bushy as Groucho's. The series includes Radio Days, from the middle-brow period, and Love and Death, a giant custard pie hurled in the face of Feodor Dostoyevsky. Enjoy.