Why, when it comes to romance, do we treat each other so badly? Laura Miller reviews two new movies which investigate that question
You’d never know from watching Hollywood movies how bitter things can get
between men and women these days. Onscreen, boy still meets girl and knows
instantly that she’s the one — or else they clash at first, but soon find
themselves gliding deliciously into each other’s arms. Everyone knows what happens ever after — why bother with the details? Romance, along with impossibly agile and resourceful action
heroes, is part of the brain candy that the movies feed us when we flee our
vexed lives and seek refuge in a dark theater.
Neil LaBute is one of those directors who wants to put a vision on the
screen that’s nearly as dark as the auditorium we sit in, and he intends
that vision to reflect the people in the seats. Last year, his tale of two
corporate managers plotting to break the heart of a deaf typist, “In the
Company of Men,” seemed unconvincing and calculated, a bid for controversy.
With his new film, “Your Friends and Neighbors,” he delivers a more
plausible, richer ensemble piece about six urbanites playing musical beds.
The result is like a Woody Allen film (“Hannah and Her Sisters” or
“Husbands and Wives”) without the goofiness and lovable neurotic schtick as
a softener. LaBute has made a comedy this time around, but it’s not so much
black as simply bleak.
The other difference between LaBute and Allen (his most obvious influence,
along with David Mamet) is that both of LaBute’s movies have been stomping
grounds for the Antichrist. In “In The Company of Men,” Aaron Eckhart’s
Chad exercises his power to cause pain with a cold-blooded, motiveless
relish; “Because I could” is his answer when another character asks him
why. In “Your Friends and Neighbors,” Jason Patric plays Cary, a guy whose
every moment on screen is devoted to demonstrating his malevolence, whether
he’s fondly reminiscing about participating in a homosexual gang rape in
high school or terrorizing a lover who dares to get her period while
sleeping on his 320-thread-count sheets. LaBute doesn’t create bad guys, he
creates fiends, which may be the most detectable sign of the
director’s Mormonism. It was Hannah Arendt, after all — a Jew like Woody
Allen — who came up with the idea of the banality of evil. LaBute will
have none of it. Cary seems like such a patent psychopath (Patric plays
him with scary, compressed rage) that you can’t help wondering why the
other characters go anywhere near him.
What LaBute asks is a question that has all too rarely occupied filmmakers
of late: Why, in the name of love, do we treat each other so badly? Combine
the dissolution of shared courtship rituals and sexual rules after the ’60s
and ’70s with the romance-drunk pop culture that saturates every corner of
contemporary life and you have a recipe for disaster — or a least a recipe
for 10,000 Cosmopolitan articles. Boy gets girl is just the beginning of
the story, the easy part. What about when boy vanishes without explanation,
or girl dumps boy because the novel he’s writing stinks, or boy asks girl
for a divorce so he can marry another girl half his age, or girl decides
what she really wants right now is another girl, or boy announces that he’s
always seen himself with someone with a tighter butt, or girl announces
that she’s just not cut out for a monogamous relationship? All of which
have happened to various people I know. Hollywood movies took a few stabs
at depicting this melee in the ’70s — films like “Carnal Knowledge” and
“Shampoo” — but the anti-romantic comedy has been in short supply of late.
That makes LaBute’s film an interesting departure, despite his Miltonian
temperament and the frosty moralism that wafts through “Your Friends and
Neighbors.” On the one hand, it’s refreshing that he can muster so much
outrage at the notion of adulterous doings behind the fagades of perfect
marriages, but on the other he doesn’t really understand that betrayal,
more often than not, is the result of weakness and self-delusion. LaBute
doesn’t pay much attention to the consequences of the cheating indulged in
by Jerry, a narcissistic drama teacher (played by the wonderfully
squirm-inducing Ben Stiller), and Mary (Amy Brenneman), the sexually
bewildered wife of his best friend. He’s much more fascinated by ruthless,
heartless alpha males like Cary and Chad, and the way other men admire them
and tacitly endorse their atrocities. As far as LaBute is concerned,
cruelty is a secondary sex characteristic, just part of being a guy, and
the more testosterone coursing through your veins, the meaner you are.
In my experience, though, squirrely, self-pitying guys like Jerry (or, for
that matter, Woody) wreak more romantic carnage — all in the name of true
love, of course — than sadistic puppetmasters. (In fact, I’m not sure I’ve
ever even met a sadistic puppetmaster, but then I, unlike LaBute’s characters, don’t spend much time in men’s steam rooms asking guys to describe their best fuck. And you
gotta wonder who does.) For all that LaBute likes to declaim about his own
unblinkered frankness when it comes to human perfidy (“this is the way life
is,” he told one interviewer), no one’s going to look at Patric’s creepy,
Nietzschean Cary and think, “Oh, God, that’s me,” any more than most of us
can identify with Hannibal Lecter. Evil, in LaBute’s cinematic universe, is
purely a spectator sport.
That universe doesn’t include anyone like the four single New Yorkers in
Nicholas Barker’s “Unmade Beds,” real people who play themselves in this
scripted documentary. Barker’s unusual technique — he wrote the screenplay
based on interviews with his subjects, then had them perform their own
statements (giving them considerable control over how they present
themselves) — makes “Unmade Beds” more complex than its premise suggests.
Barker ends the film with four long, silent, motionless shots of each of
his subjects staring directly into the camera, challenging us to judge
them. That’s the director’s crudest move, probably intended to deflect
charges of exploitation, but it’s entirely unnecessary. By the end of
“Unmade Beds,” if you feel enough distance from these people to pity them,
then you’re the one who’s emotionally deficient.
Barker’s toughest case is Michael De Stefano, an unsuccessful 50ish
“screenwriter” with a penchant for black shirts and aviator shades, who
describes his shag-carpeted home as “my cave. This apartment says to every
woman who comes here, ‘You’re here to fuck. If you don’t want to fuck,
leave.’” That bit of bravado could have been written for one of LaBute’s
monsters, but not too far into “Unmade Beds” you realize that no women have
been around to receive the cave’s message in quite some time. By day, De
Stefano types out hard-boiled dialogue and tells Barker, “I don’t go out with
mutts,” but by night he eats his share of humble pie. Recounting one date,
he says, with impassive dignity, “She told me she’d be embarrassed to
introduce me to her friends because my position in life is not high enough.” Later, in another eerie echo of LaBute’s steam room confessionals, he recounts the peak of his sex life (sleeping with three different women in the course of two days). He pauses, then volunteers that if he’d been faithful to any of them, he wouldn’t be alone today.
The rest of the foursome in “Unmade Beds” includes Aimee and Mikey, at 28
and 40 respectively, both terrified that they’ll never get married. Mikey
blames his height (5-foot-4) and visits a “dating coach” who warns him that he
comes across as a bit too “intense.” Aimee doesn’t blame her weight (220
pounds) for her predicament, and she can still laugh off the “worst date of
my entire life” with her best friend, but she refuses to try a dating
service because “it’s my last resort. What do I do if that doesn’t work?”
Finally, there’s Brenda, an aging, wisecracking sexpot, who doesn’t really
want a man at all. “Dick is easy to get. You just reach out anytime and you
grab a dick. What I need is cash.” In exchange for her still much-sought-after favors,
she seeks a fellow “who will give me money, help me with the things I need, and go away.”
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Brenda, the one with the fewest
romantic expectations, is the only person in “Unmade Beds” who seems
remotely at home in the world. She can even stand in front of a mirror,
cataloging the slow deterioration of her scantily clad body (“everything’s
moving around, and I don’t like it”) without capsizing into agonized
self-hatred. Still, for all the considerable despair they endure, Aimee and
Mikey keep trying. Even De Stephano, who mostly lives in a Mickey
Spillane-esque fantasy world (“When I bleed, I like to bleed alone”),
doesn’t lie to himself about his past mistakes and the long odds he now
faces. You can see how disappointment — not cold-blooded sadism –
sometimes leads these people to lash out (as when Mikey berates a potential
date for hanging out with gay men) at a world that doesn’t fulfill all
their Hollywood-fueled dreams. But you can also see that they’re human
beings, and like the rest of us, they aren’t beyond redemption.
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Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
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See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
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A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
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Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
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Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
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The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
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Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
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Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
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And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
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