there are some of us who despised frat boys so much in college that years after graduating, the sight of Sperry Topsiders, button-down Oxford shirts and Madras shorts is still enough to fill us with loathing. We may feel that loathing again when we see those same frat boys enter the corporate world in their crisp white shirts (button-down, of course), soberly patterned ties and muted gabardine trousers.
Neil LaBute shares that loathing. Frat boys rule the world in his debut film, "In the Company of Men," which won for Best Dramatic Feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival. LaBute has looked at the blank and hardy young execs waiting in line to climb the corporate ladder and seen rich white frat boys given even more power and privilege than they wielded on campus. "In the Company of Men," a sort of Theater of Humiliation lecture-demonstration on the extremes of sexual and corporate power, bitterly divided audiences at Sundance. And the debate over this movie isn't going to quiet down when it opens this month because of the moviegoers who are bound to confuse LaBute's point of view with that of his characters.
LaBute clearly doesn't hate women. His venom is entirely reserved for his protagonists, two corporate heels who set out to get revenge on all women. I can't think of another recent movie in which the director hates his leads as openly as LaBute does these two. He's like one of those guys whose car sports an "Another Man Against Violence Against Women" bumper sticker, a sentiment I've always found suspect because it implies that most men think it's just fine for women to be beaten and raped.
The irony of "In the Company of Men," though, is that for all the distance that LaBute puts between himself and his protagonists, he's made a movie that shares their sadism. "In the Company of Men" is basically a variation on the old frat-boy "joke" of hosting a dance that's actually a competition to see which brother can bring the ugliest date. Lantern-jawed, boringly handsome Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and doughy, bespectacled Howard (Matt Molloy) are two grasping young executives sent by their company on a six-week project to a branch office. Both of them have just been dumped by their steadies, and one drunken night Chad comes up with a scheme to avenge himself and Howard. He proposes that they find a woman with no romantic prospects in her life -- the more unattractive the better -- and then each woo her, get her to fall for them and dump her. Their chosen target is Christine (Stacy Edwards), a secretarial assistant working in the office they've been sent to. LaBute ratchets up the grotesque factor by making Christine deaf.
Dramatically, there's nowhere for a movie to go after a setup like that. Once we've learned that Chad is enough of a shit to come up with the idea, and Howard enough of a weasel to go along with it, the only thing left to do is to watch Christine put through the stages of her humiliation. It ceases to matter that LaBute hates Chad and Howard. He turns us into voyeurs with nothing to watch but an innocent woman being shattered emotionally.
"In the Company of Men" is a singularly unpleasant movie. And from the point that Chad and Howard settle on Christine, it's an increasingly unbelievable one, too. Edwards, who plays Christine, is a dark, fine-featured beauty. I defy anyone to see this woman and believe for an instant that she'd have trouble getting a date. The only reason LaBute expects us to believe it is that Christine is deaf. Chad and Howard are certainly stupid enough to imagine that handicapped people have no romantic life, but LaBute expects us to swallow it, too. In this movie, deaf equals lonely, simple and trusting. Watching Chad -- the sort of glad-handing prick drawn to the water cooler like a shark to blood -- you're struck by how easy it is to spot him as a bullshit artist. He's a walking, talking three-dollar bill.
For a movie so concerned with the transgressions of power, "In the Company of Men" never misses a chance to linger on the humiliations of the powerless. We're stuck, miserable, watching the shamed face of the young African-American worker whom Chad -- literally -- forces to prove he "has the balls" for the job. And when Chad dumps Christine, LaBute gives us an endless shot of her wailing and devastated that is almost pornographically invasive. LaBute employs a flattened-out realist style of sub-Mametisms and static camera setups that provide nothing more than excuses for two characters to talk. The style only accentuates how ludicrous the movie is. It's inevitable that this picture's defenders will point to recent cases of corporate sexual harassment to justify it. "In the Company of Men" is tailor-made to play to people who are predisposed to hate the corporate mentality. I consider myself one of them. But nothing LaBute does here meshes with anything I experienced during the three years I recently spent as a copy editor in the ad agency of a leading investment house.
The young execs I encountered were just as narrow and dull and conventional as Chad and Howard, just as numbingly focused on their jobs, just as conscious of who's gaining on them. So focused and conscious that, at their uncertain mid-level positions (no longer young promising recruits, not yet hot-shots) in an economy in which downsizing rules and employees are inundated with stern guidelines on what constitutes sexual or racial harassment, they wouldn't dare risk their jobs by pulling a stunt like this. By and large, the executives who've been caught in the biggest recent harassment or discrimination cases (like the Texaco one) have been high enough in the food chain to believe themselves untouchable. And since they've proved to be anything but, what chances do plankton like Chad and Howard stand? You'd have to be a fool to deny the existence of sexual and racial discrimination in an atmosphere still so predominantly white and male. But as women and minorities continue to make their presence felt in business, the resentment against them is going to become subtler, more insidious.
And it's going to come from the hot shots who have an almost childish need to think of themselves as nice guys. When Chad says, "Let's hurt somebody," he's a villain out of "Dynasty" or Harold Robbins. In "In the Company of Men," power equals villainy, and we're free to retreat into our fantasies of victimhood.