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A Review

'In the Company of Men' -- don't bring a date

In the Company of Men August 18, 1997
Web posted at: 11:21 p.m. EDT (0321 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

Is a filmmaker automatically more courageous and far-reaching simply because his or her work deals with a particularly vile, dark-hearted truth? Or, to put it another way, is an unwillingness to flinch the same thing as being an artist? I've considered these questions before, ("Blue Velvet" and "Kids" being the topics, with my answers being "no" on both counts) but they beg to be asked again when assessing "In the Company of Men."

In the Company of Men
video icon 2.4M/1 min 3 sec. QuickTime movie

I'm beginning to see a pattern.

Writer/director Neil LaBute has concocted a story about abusive "men" that, for its sheer obviousness when considering human nature, stands as a battle of the sexes version of "Lord of the Flies." I put men in quotes because, lets face it, there are tons and tons of irredeemable jerks out there, but the kind of sexist terrorizing that takes place in "In the Company of Men" is beyond the call of duty for anyone but the inarguably sociopathic. There's another word for the "men" that LaBute examines and everyone knows what it is because, just like opinions, everybody's got one.

Aaron Eckhart plays Chad, a macho, square-jawed hunk of a businessman who decides, along with his mousy co-worker, Howard (Matt Malloy), to randomly romance, seduce, and abandon a young woman while they're in town for a few weeks, working on a project for their company. They're looking for that special, lost "someone" who feels that romance, or even the hope of physical contact with a man, is a fading dream. They eventually select Cristine (Stacy Edwards) as the object of their phony affections. Cristine is a pretty, young temp at their busy office who's extremely self-conscious and withdrawn because (get this) she's deaf.

Try as I might, I can come up with no reason for Edwards' character to be so afflicted except that it simply makes the entire undertaking more degraded and cruel ... as if the original plan isn't inhumanely distasteful enough. Eckhart's Chad even has a couple of sarcastic diatribes that mock Cristine's halting, hollow-voiced way of speaking. None of the other guys in the office know about the so-called game that Chad and Howard are playing, but they sure have no trouble at all openly guffawing over this sweet, gentle woman's difficulty in making her thoughts known. The movie isn't powerful so much as it's unapologetically grotesque.

The three leads (especially Edwards, who is very good) give solid performances, and LaBute often writes strong dialogue, but everything that's going to be gleaned from this film can be gleaned in a synopsis of the plot. Are we really expected to leave the theater in shock because LaBute has discovered that human beings can be excessively malicious towards each other? Is that a scoop? Even the battle-of-the-sexes angle rings false once Cristine's deafness becomes an issue.

If what you're looking for is a round-robin of abuse, this is the movie you've been waiting for. Women are attacked. Handicapped people are attacked. The business world is attacked. And, since they're the ones doing the attacking, men are getting it, too. So I guess that means that just about everyone in the world is a repugnant louse. We never learn anything new about any of the characters until the latter third of the movie, when Howard belatedly starts developing a conscience, so I have to ask -- once again -- what's the point here? Don't try calling it a black comedy. That just points up the script's desperate need for a few jokes.

This is one of those movies that's virtually critic-proof, though. If I complain about how ugly it all is, the argument can be made that that's exactly the point. It's supposed to be ugly. I've always hated when critics say a film is well-made and well-acted, but they wouldn't really call its dark subject matter "entertainment." Entertainment can be just as dark as you want it to be, but there's supposed to be some thinking going on in order to qualify it as entertainment. "Why?" is a question that doesn't get asked until the very end of "In the Company of Men," and the answer is so obvious and unenlightening, you feel like a damn fool for sitting through the whole thing and expecting a summation. Ultimately, you just end up being a voyeur to an act that you don't even want to consider, much less watch for an hour and a half.

Do not confuse what's going on here with brilliance. If anybody out there wants my viewing, they can have it.

"In the Company of Men" will remind you just how much scum there is in the world, but I'll bet your working knowledge of that fact is what drove you into the theater in the first place. No sex. No nudity. Some bad language. Near reprehensible, and let me make it clear that that isn't a hip 90s version of praise. Rated R. 93 minutes.


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