I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the triumvirate of films writer/director Neil LaBute has crafted from his own material—In the Company of Men (1997), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), and The Shape of Things, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this May—have all been released in summertime. Even if you love to hate them, the logic seems to go, his films serve up lofty fare compared to the spate of blockbusters that fill theaters this time of year, like intellectual lifeboats in the season’s deluge of dumb eye candy and special effects.
Pallid affairs aesthetically, LaBute’s triumvirate shares a stiltedness with his two other films, the bracing comedy Nurse Betty (2000) and last year’s Possession, a bloodless adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s terrific novel. His sets boast an emptiness less ascetic than hollow; the plot dilemmas he concocts are strictly screenwriting 101; and his characters speak a dialect inspired by Mamet, a writer/director who should come with the warning label Don’t try this at home, and are almost entirely yuppie, straight, white. The few black actors in his films typically look stunned—Chris Rock’s eyebrows were raised for almost the entirety of Nurse Betty, for example. And, though LaBute has been accused of misogyny, I find that too specific a charge. His female characters may clock in as stereotypically weak sisters or manipulative bitches, but his men are no better: bullies, dandies, or pussies, all of them.
Certainly, the only colorful thing about Neil Labute’s work is his misanthropy. His movies turn heads mostly for their unredemptive nastiness, sacrificing any plausibility of characters or plot in order to substantiate his dour take on human nature. Believe in no one and nothing, they seem to hiss, save the weakness of the human spirit and its disposition for betrayal.
A Lucy-style psychoanalysis might suggest that it is the writer/director’s own lack of vision that he truly hates. At the risk of falling in line with many other U.S. critics, that’s one hatred I can heartily endorse.
Perhaps the best proxy for LaBute in his films is In the Company of Men’s Chad, a generic businessman whose idea of a practical joke is to feign love for the deaf secretary in the office. Chad, played by Aaron Eckhart, blandly utters lines better suited to the Lifetime Channel than a purportedly independent film—except when he snaps into an ugly malice. Then, he swears with aplomb, his eyes take on a glint, and he grows preternaturally handsome, funny, alive. LaBute recruits that very type of malice—via Jason Patric’s Cary and Catherine Keener as Terri in Your Friends & Neighbors—to punch up the worlds he presents as otherwise bleak, witless, banal. Loathsome as these three characters may be, they always manifest what he must consider a refreshing honesty, and so come equipped with a long, slightly erotic verbal whip that coils out to straighten your spine just as you loll back in your seat.
Which is why 10 minutes into The Shape of Things I started wishing I’d bought one of those $4 Cokes: This movie lacks a LaBute surrogate. Instead, the director layers upon his usual diatribe about the immorality of human beings a wet snaggle of a discourse about what comprises art, and whether art can or should be crafted morally. Valid questions that, however hackneyed, always merit speculation, but only if that speculation proves philosophically or aesthetically innovative. And that’s where LaBute drops the ball.
Adapted from his play that enjoyed a good run in both London and New York, The Shape of Things is a Pygmalion-type story featuring four students who may as well be named Plot Devices 1-4. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is an MFA candidate who makes as her project a makeover of her so-called boyfriend, undergrad Adam (Paul Rudd), and by extension of his friends, engaged couple Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Fred Weller). From the opening scene, when Evelyn announces to museum guard, Adam, her plan to deface the demure curtsy of a leaf slapped over a statue’s cock—"It’s fake art," she says flatly—and you catch Adam’s awkward, corduroy-clad ass and hopeless bedhead, you just know doesn’t stem from actually bedding anybody, it’s hard to suppress a groan. Miss Evelyn’s found herself a fixer-upper, though revealing to what end would divulge the film’s queasy trick of an ending.
All four actors, reprising their roles from the stage production, wear the slightly glazed expressions of those phoning in their performances. And no wonder, for LaBute didn’t change his play at all when adapting it to the screen, nor did he imbue his characters with the kind of nuances that actors love to unearth the longer they inhabit their roles. Weisz in particular speaks in a trance, with an eerie smile tugging at her lips and such dead eyes that you wonder why the others haven’t already noticed what a complete sociopath she is. Paul Rudd, an actor capable of real warmth and great American-style humor if not subtlety, goes the other way and overreaches, wiggling and mugging in his silly body until he’s reined in by his girl’s proverbial belt. And Gretchen Mol, who’s never recovered from being named the next "It Girl" by Vanity Fair in what turned out to be a preemptive strike against her assent, affects here a cringing niceness as if to apologize for that china doll prettiness that won her attention before she’d had the change to earn it. The connections between these characters are so tenuous that Evelyn’s demand that Adam give up his friends hardly impacts at all—none of them are really the cads or losers the plot requires them to be, let alone friends. Rather, they’re just figments of LaBute’s lousy imagination.
Moralism doesn’t seem to be treating LaBute too well. His constant prodding at issues surrounding ethics and art reads like a sublimation of his own immoral impulses, rather than the amoral ones driving the bulk of current pop culture. Of course the old saw that most art is sublimation is true—and thank God for that, lest even more politicians and serial killers fill the streets. But LaBute’s particular preoccupation with morality smacks of the ’80s TV evangelists preaching the good word until they were brought down by charges of embezzlement and sexual indiscretions. You’d think he’d have outgrown these either/or dichotomies, these notions of bad or good, naughty or nice. Indeed, he doesn’t wear them very well, like these four thirtysomething actors struggling to fit into the roles of students in The Shape of Things. It’s all, like, so last century.
Whereas in two of this seasons’ biggest blockbusters—sequels no less, traditionally the worst of all boneheaded summer flicks—the future is now, both aesthetically and ideologically.
Like a true science fiction geek, I saw both X2 and Matrix Reloaded the day they opened, in Park Slope’s Pavilion Theater, which I heartily recommend. It’s all old-fashioned big screens, art deco ceilings, and plush purple thrones, complete with holders for those $4 Cokes. A sensory-infusion tank, perfect for ogling how these big movies fairly burst with color (especially in contrast to LaBute’s sensory deprivation tank of a film).
And color is the operative word. Why I’ve always liked science fiction, or why I’ve always rationalized liking science fiction (bad-ass special effects and superpowers are a serious bonus), is that what’s projected onto the future speaks volumes about our present—what we fear, what we need, what could be. Imagine a future, as in Matrix Reloaded, studded with people of color in every social echelon, when the public intellectual Cornel West holds a high governmental position, and when a big civic holiday includes a huge, multiracial rave. Or when the most sexually desirable females are not young Barbies but capable grown-ups, as in both of these films.
For science fiction, especially those blockbusters, can have a way of sneaking its political agenda in the back door of your consciousness before the Coke has even dried on your lips. In this case, these two movies impose the very contemporary issues of plurality and agency on the "near futures" that they project, drawing heavily on civil rights movements for inspiration. In X2, for example, the mutants—bad and good alike—unite their forces in order to defeat a governmental special operation running renegade in a blatant abuse of their power. Or early in Matrix Reloaded, the normally leaden resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) delivers a speech that recalls no less than JFK Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. in order to rouse his people against the machines who convert humans into living batteries. Or when someone asks baby-blue Mystique in X2 why she doesn’t always appear in the more traditional human guise it’s within her superpowers to don, she hisses, "Why should I have to?" Or when Bobby, a.k.a. the X-Man Iceman, comes out as a mutant to his family, his mother whimpers, "But, can’t you just not be a mutant?"
Everyone in the theater I was in snickered at that last scene, and I started. This is a major Hollywood movie, I thought, and it’s successfully sending up the oppressor, not the oppressed. What next? President Bush diverting the military’s budget to improve public education? Pat Buchanan marching in Gay Pride?
Certainly neither X2 nor Matrix Reloaded is a perfect film. Both occasionally get bogged down by the weight of their worlds, in addition to ours. X2 juggles so many characters that none are adequately developed, and Matrix buckles under the tautology of its own cosmic questions. As much as I like watching Keanu Reeves as Neo’s fluid karate moves, knowing that he perceives the Matrix as a mere construct makes it strange to watch him bother to fight within it. Neo himself seems vaguely unclear about his motives in those scenes, although that may just be how pretty Keanu always looks when he’s trying to think. Both movies end with classic cliffhangers, too, trailing a bevy of unanswered questions all the more irksome because you know they’re intended to draw you in for another round.
But just when you think you’re going to have to resort to laughing at the films rather than with them—even the droll Alan Cumming’s wit seems submerged by a garbled German accent and slathered indigo body paint—each film drops us a wide wink. As when, in X2, Wolverine (the dry Hugh Jackman) glumly realizes his product placement of a soda is warm, and the Iceman cools it down wordlessly with his exhalation.
Really, these queefs are small potatoes compared to what these movies do accomplish. Both blockbusters, particularly Matrix Reloaded, look as good as their politics, matching aesthetic and ideological innovations blow for blow. And it’s a heady cinematic moment, after all, when what’s fun, pretty, and popular advocates social change, and what’s considered more independent, a là Neil LaBute films, sports a reactionary pettiness in fact best stranded in the bleachers.