The Man Who Viewed Too Much
4 August 1997

In the Company of Men

Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Rating: *** ½

Mrs Brown

Directed by John Madden
Written by Jeremy Brock
Rating: ** ½

Box of Moonlight

Written and directed by Tom DiCillo
Rating: ** ½

Murder at 1600

Directed by Dwight Little
Written by Wayne Beach & David Hodgin
Rating: * ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: "How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

Winston thought. "By making him suffer," he said.

"Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?"

George Orwell, 1984

Every year, approximately three dozen low-budget movies looking for cheap word-of-mouth will claim in their print advertising to be "the year's most controversial film!" Like all such assertions ("the year's funniest comedy!" "the summer's most exciting thrill ride!" "this week's least irritating rehash of stale B-movie conventions updated for the '90s with nonstop profanity and pointless pop culture references!"), this is totally unverifiable, these things being subjective; still, I'd be willing to bet that In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute's striking, caustic debut feature, is the title's rightful owner for 1997. Even though the film created a considerable stir at Sundance, no distributor initially wanted to touch it; Miramax's Harvey Weinstein reportedly turned it down because he feared that women would loathe it, and that a People vs. Larry Flynt-style backlash might ensue. This week's Entertainment Weekly includes a feature story entitled (on the issue's cover, anyway) "Why We're Fighting Over In the Company of Men." The film doesn't seem to me to be inspiring the same rabid love-it-or-hate-it responses that, say, Crash did earlier in the year -- even those who are troubled by its ideology tend to respect it as art -- but I'd guess that many of the post-film discussions that began on 1 August, the day it opened in New York and Los Angeles, are still in progress. (Hell, my friend Chris and I are still intermittently arguing about Blue Velvet, eleven years later.)

Trouble is, In the Company of Men is creating controversy largely because many people don't seem to understand it. The same folks who soberly reported two years ago that Todd Haynes' Safe was a drama about environmental illness (it wasn't) are now animatedly arguing about LaBute's movie, with some accusing it of misogyny, others of misandry (that's "hatred of men" to those of you who don't regularly "enrich your word power"; and yes, I did have to go look it up). Both factions are equally wrongheaded -- the correct charge is misanthropy. In the Company of Men is not, as it superficially purports to be, a film about gender relations, or about the often predatory nature of what our society defines as masculinity, though it makes cogent observations about both subjects. It is a film about power. It concerns the XY population only incidentally; upper-class white men are its province because upper-class white men currently control most of the world's resources. A roughly similar dynamic to the one LaBute employs here can be found in George Cukor's superficially playful film of The Women, for example, in which no men appear at all. Power is relative...and power, as we all know, corrupts. LaBute tells us nothing we don't already know; what's bracing about his film is how baldly he tells us what we so desperately choose to forget or ignore.

Hmm. I seem to be drifting into thesis mode, don't I? Let's see if I can't lighten up just a bit, for the benefit of those for whom summer is supposed to be a respite from academia.

So what happens in the movie is this: two corporate drones, Chad and Howard by name, fly to an unspecified city to do unspecified work for the unspecified company for which they toil. Both of them have recently been dumped by their respective girlfriends, and both are feeling ill-used by women generally. Chad (Aaron Eckhart), the bolder and more charismatic of the two, proposes a plan: while they're in town, they'll find a needy, damaged, exquisitely sensitive woman; separately woo her; shower her with affection and attention; bolster her sagging ego; and then, once their six-week tour of duty is complete, unceremoniously dump her. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week," enthuses Chad, in a line of dialogue quoted by every single critic who's written about the film to date (hey, who am I to break a streak?), "and you and I will be laughing about this until we are very old men." Chad's tone is preposterously casual, as if he were suggesting that he and Howard test-drive a lot of cars despite having no intention of actually buying one, and Howard (Matt Molloy), the meeker and nerdier of the pair (and Chad's superior in the company), hesitantly agrees to participate in the scheme, apparently swayed as much by Chad's matter-of-fact tone as by his own frustrations and insecurities.

What follows, with a few important exceptions, is fairly predictable. I immediately guessed, for instance, that one or both of the men would grow to care for Christine (Stacy Edwards), the deaf secretary they choose as their victim, and I was correct. What I did not anticipate, however, was that the plot described above, which is repulsively fascinating in its own right, essentially amounts to misdirection. LaBute does something both canny and brazen: he tells you right up front what the film is ostensibly about, then litters the background of virtually every scene with hints as to what the film is really about. Watching it a second time was revelatory, because things that seemed like clever filler the first time around took on a profound significance when viewed through a slightly modified lens of awareness. Again, I don't intend to imply that LaBute isn't interested in Chad and Howard's sadistic little game, or in its consequences; nor do I mean for you to ignore the plot while scanning the borders of the frame for possible clues. But people who walk out of the theater arguing about whether he's saying thishere or thatthere about guys or gals simply weren't paying close attention. To its credit, In the Company of Men isn't nearly that simplistic.

Of the three central performances, Eckhart's is the stunner -- a virtuoso, nightmarish illustration of Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil. This may sound silly, but I think Eckhart deserves an Oscar nomination just for speaking Chad's lines without cracking up; I doubt that I would have been able to keep a straight face no matter how many takes I might have been given, and as Company was reportedly shot in just eleven days, I can't imagine that the phrase "that was fine, but let's do one more just to see what happens" was often heard on the set. What's more, Eckhart manages to suggest with admirable subtlety that Chad might be falling for Christine (LaBute's terrific script deserves a lot of the credit as well, of course); a lesser actor would have been tempted to overplay Chad's occasional halfhearted compliments and wistful remarks, but Eckhart wisely opts never to vary the even-keeled tone of his performance, demonstrating limited range (which is what would scare most actors) but superb control and understanding. Malloy, in a more complex and demanding role, is nearly as good, though he whiffs one of his big moments (his final scene with Chad), diluting the power of the film's climax with thoroughly competent work that didn't send my heart into my mouth as it ought to have. Edwards, meanwhile, isn't given much to do -- the film's conceit demands that Christine be a goodhearted wallflower, and hence something of a dullard -- but skillfully handles the physical demands of playing a character who's been deaf since early convincing is she that I assumed Edwards was really deaf, which she is not. She's perhaps a bit too pretty for the role -- it's hard to believe that she'd have any trouble getting dates, disability or no -- but that's such a common fault in even the most independent of movies that I tend to automatically overlook it nowadays.

Asked about his influences in an interview in the current Village Voice, LaBute rattles off half a dozen names, none of which is David Mamet. This strikes me as a bit disingenuous, since In the Company of Men fairly oozes Mamet, not merely in its staccato macho dialogue but also in its carefully static, neo-Eisensteinian compositions; LaBute seems to have studied Mamet the film director as well as Mamet the playwright (a smart move, for my money, though Mamet-as-filmmaker has at least as many detractors as proponents). Nor is he afraid to use bald theatrical devices: a plot twist in the final few minutes is revealed precisely as it would be revealed onstage, and yet is no less effective on celluloid. It takes a supremely confident first-timer to make a choice like that, without worrying about being accused of theatricality (especially in a film as wall-to-wall talky as this one), and LaBute, who had never made so much as a short before, appears to be a natural. Seeing the film a second time, after an interval of about four months, I was sorely tempted to upgrade its rating to a full four stars; only its familiarity -- what I described in my initial capsule review as its Mamet-rewrites-Les liaisons dangereuses feel (LaBute also cites Restoration comedy as a major influence, and while Laclos' 1782 novel doesn't technically belong in that category, it's in the aesthetic ballpark) -- held me back. For all of his evident intelligence, confidence, and skill, I don't get the impression that LaBute has quite found his own voice yet. When he does, I suspect that four stars may well seem like too few.

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Is there anybody alive who doesn't harbor at least a little ill will towards Masterpiece Theatre? The name alone is enough to make you retch; not only is it arrogant and supercilious, it's often about as accurate as were masochistic movie titles like Perfect and Best of the Best. So when I learned that the acclaimed new historical drama Mrs Brown had been co-produced by that oh-so-eminent institution (in conjunction with the BBC), I immediately feared the worst. Just what the world needs: another regal, staid, picturesque, stiff-upper-lip costume weepie. Hold me back.

As it turns out, Mrs Brown isn't as bad as all that, largely because the title role (Queen Victoria, though few Americans would deduce that from the title -- hence the addition of the words "Her Majesty" in Miramax's ad campaign) is played by the inestimable Dame Judi Dench, who gives the most tremulously reserved performance I've seen since Anthony Hopkins quivered his reticent way through The Remains of the Day. Based loosely on actual events, albeit with conjecture a-plenty, the film tells the story of Victoria's relationship with one of her manservants, John Brown (Billy Connolly), following the death of her beloved Prince Albert. The true nature of that relationship remains unknown, but they were close enough for a time that wags began referring to the Queen as Brown's husband, and screenwriter Jeremy Brock, while carefully sidestepping the question of possible sexual relations (reportedly, Dench and Connolly disagree about whether or not they slept together [Victoria and Brown, that is, not Dench and Connolly -- this isn't Last Year at Locarno], with Connolly in favor of the notion and Dench against), strongly suggests that that they were deeply in love. So what we have onscreen is a platonic British romance, not unlike the one portrayed in Christopher Hampton's interminable Carrington, with class boundaries replacing sexual preference as the impediment to bliss. Not a terribly original idea for a movie (see everything from the Mary Pickford silent My Best Girl to John Hughes' Pretty in Pink), but an inherently compelling one.

Dench, as I said, is marvelous, effortlessly revealing the chinks in Victoria's formidable armor. The trouble lies with Brown, both in the conception of his character and in Connolly's lackluster performance. A Scots Highlander, Brown is depicted as a plain-spooken, no-nunsense, cut-the-crrrep, down-to-airth fellow whose irreverence and impropriety pumps fresh air into the musty, decorous bubble into which the grieving Queen has enclosed herself; this may well have been true of the real Brown, but it's an irritating, facile conceit all the same. Apart from the mismatched-buddy-cop flick and Die Hard-in-a-[whatever], I can't think of a genre as tired as the one in which an uptight prig meets a wacky eccentric and learns to loosen up; it's so prevalent, in fact, that I'm reviewing another specimen further along in this very column. A friend of mine who adores Mrs Brown raves about its exploration of the conflict between duty and desire, focusing his attention on Victoria's dilemma, but that deck is so stacked that I find it impossible to even recognize it as a conflict, at least from an emotional standpoint . Victoria may be torn, but we in the audience can't be -- watching a movie is ultimately all about being seduced, and love is far more seductive than responsibility, especially when the lovelorn party seems as miserable as the Queen does before Brown shows up. Even in a film as sublime as Brief Encounter, our sympathies are entirely with the lovers, even as we recognize (skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen David Lean and Noel Coward's masterpiece yet, and then go rent it immediately) that Laura probably made the right decision in returning to her family. The implicit romance between Victoria and Brown, sadly, isn't half so moving or memorable as the one Laura and the good doctor develop over the course of their weekly get-togethers.

Most of the blame for that inequity lies with Connolly, a Scottish stand-up comic who's best known in the U.S. for taking over the lead role on Head of the Class. I haven't seen Connolly tell any jokes, but on the basis of his work in Mrs Brown, television seems to be where he belongs, and nobody's done him any favors by putting him in such close proximity to an old pro like Ms. Dench. Apparently, Sean Connery was once scheduled to play John Brown, and while Connery's mythic, larger-than-life presence would surely have been inappropriate, Connolly demonstrates no presence whatsoever, which is hardly an improvement. Worse, his Brown is more often than not an overbearing, condescending jerk, whereas Brock and director John Madden (not the former football coach) seem to find him gruff but lovable, even when he's bullying his fellow servants, or disobeying direct orders on the mysterious grounds that he, and he alone, understands Her Majesty's needs. In short, I did not like John Brown, though I was clearly intended to do so. Unfortunately, Mrs Brown simply doesn't work if Brown's aggressive meddling doesn't strike you as deeply romantic, so the superlative work done by Dench and Antony Sher (as Benjamin Disraeli) was all for naught.

Ah, yes, Mr. Sher. I'd nearly forgotten. I first heard of him when Stanley came to New York; the acclaim for his performance was so unanimous that I looked into getting a ticket, but the play never turned up at the TKTS half-price outlet, and my budget at the time was too flimsy for me to feel comfortable coughing up the $45 or whatever it was. Mrs Brown, consequently, is my first exposure to his work (he's also currently on view in Alive and Kicking, which I'm reluctantly gonna skip, I think), and while his Disraeli is a riot, no question, it's utterly out of place in this movie -- had I not known better, I might have assumed it was Christopher Guest in a bad wig. A veteran of the stage with (so far) little film experience, Sher seems to have no control over his facial muscles...or, rather, he has superb control over them, but doesn't seem to realize that the camera is only a few feet away, and that the invention of the close-up back in the silent era obviates the need to project to the balcony. So vigorously does he mince here that I'm surprised that his eyebrows and lips aren't permanently arched and pursed, respectively; to say that he clashes a bit with the film's sober tone is like saying that polka dots clash a bit with pinstripes. Tone it down, Tony, or take it outside -- preferably to a comedy.

Looking back over what I've written, I see that I've concentrated so intently on the film's flaws that I've made it sound less enjoyable than it actually is -- this reads like a two-star review, and I actually came quite close to giving it three stars. Apart from Connolly, the acting is first-rate, and Brock's script, though overly familiar, is both nuanced and intelligent. It's not a bad movie -- just a disappointing and wildly overrated one. About what you'd expect from Masterpiece Theatre, in other words. Theatre, yes; masterpiece, not even close.

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IN BRIEF: John Turturro is Al Fountain, an uptight prig. Sam Rockwell is The Kid, a wacky eccentric. They meet, and The Kid teaches Al to loosen up and enjoy life. Hmm...why does this sound vaguely familiar? Like Mrs Brown, Box of Moonlight very nearly transcends its stale premise, thanks to fine performances and strong writing; Turturro, in particular, is superb, bringing a clumsy sort of grace to a role that in other hands might have wound up as mere caricature. As gentle comedy, the film works beautifully, with several near-classic moments...none funnier than the one in which clueless Al misinterprets a waitress' flirtatious remarks ("if she wants to know about the hot water over here," he fumes later in his hotel room, "why doesn't she just call the manager?!?"). Trouble is, writer/director Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion) also wants to Say Something Significant, and to that end crams his movie full of dopey freshman-comp symbolism (e.g., Al sets off on his journey of discovery in a vehicle he's rented from, yes, Circle Rent-A-Car -- DiCillo even helpfully places the sign in the foreground as Al drives away, so even the roaches and mice in the theater will get the idea). And The Kid, who spends much of the film dressed as Davy Crockett and is prone to remarks like "Hey, don't open that! You'll let out the moonlight!," is sometimes precious to the point of nausea. Not as painfully whimsical as the trailer had led me to expect, but still a near-miss. Murder at 1600, meanwhile, stinks. Period. And yes, that's all I have to say about it. It's five words more than it deserves.

Next time (in all likelihood): Air Force One, Career Girls, Guantanamera, Love Serenade, The Winner