IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (1997) *** 1//3
The plot is diabolically simple. Ten years out of college, two old classmates work for an unspecified firm's headquarters in an unspecified city as junior or middle executives. We meet them in an airport lounge, one of those bland, anonymouss, faceless spaces where business people can be found. The anonymity applies throughout to buildings, offices, cubicles, restaurants, etc., not to mention dark suits and white shirts. One of the men is Chad, who looks like one of those cookie-cutter ex-Joe College "boys" that some people go for --but then some people also go for Joe Camel. The other is Howard, shorter, vaguely nerdy-ish, wearing glasses. He outranks Chad in the firm.
They are waiting for the plane to take them for a six-week stay at a branch of their outfit, in a non-specified city. (F.y.i. the end credits thank Fort Wayne, Indiana). Howard is nursing an ear bitten, it would seem, by his now alienated fiancee (or perhaps wife). The movie does have the nasty habit of trying to be so coyly generic, in the special sense of "this can apply to anyone, anywhere," that it can get counterproductive. It distracts the viewer by holding back bits that, if given, would not have tainted the "purity" of the script.
Chad is a misanthrope, a hater of everything he can name, from the machinations of the world of business to his stab-you-in-the back colleagues to ...you name it. He is also someone who seems to think of himself as a Don Juan, and is a misogynist seducer. (That's no contradiction by many interpretations of Don Juan). Right now, he is seething because it would appear (note how prudently I phrase this) that his current girl friend has jilted him.
At the airport and on the plane, working himself up to a sickly level of fury, he hatches a plan and enlists the less polemical Howard's collaboration. To take their revenge on women, they should cast around for a good subject during their six-week tour of duty, both of them seduce her, then discard her. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week and you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men." This is like extermination camp talk by the SS.
Howard, albeit less sanguine, goes along. At the new work-place, their victim is spotted: Christine, a pretty temp typist who has been deaf since age eight but can speak haltingly, slowly, with those special intonations of deaf persons.
The men go to work on her, dating her without letting her know that they are colleagues. Chad turns on the charm, or what passes for charm, while ridiculing the woman's speech to his buddy. Awkward Howard is more polite about her yet at first shows subtle lechery. After he has complimented Christine on her looks, heating her say she has a sister, he knee-jerkily pops the question: "You have any pictures?"
Back at the office, it's all friendly talk with miscellaneous colleagues and badmouthing the same as soon as they're out of the room. Politics reign. Hypocrisy and insecurity reach Mach 3. Sexist jokes abound. Cruelty to man and women is the order of the day (and the week, and the years). To put it simply, the two men are crude,callous louts. Could many other men be far behind?
The movie is the first film effort by Neil LaBut, a known playwright. In an interview he has made some statements that prove to me how differently creators and critics can interpret things. "The film has a lot of laughs." I didn't see any, riveted as I was by the nastiness on the screen. "Then the situation turns vicious. I love the idea of pulling people in and turning on them. For instance, seducing them into thinking that Chad is amusing and even charming, only to leave them shocked when they discover later just how much of a viper he really is." I can't see this. Chad is a sickening fellow from the start. You don't have to wait for him to humiliate a black trainee, or to cheat in business matters on his pal Howard to realize this.
The film's structure calls for seven divisions, from Week One through Week Six, plus A Few Weeks Later. Each section fades to black and the next one is announced by aggressive, ominous, indeed scary drum beats. The camera remains mostly static, with shots that often distance us from the subjects. This may be partly the result of a tiny budget of $25,000, if you believe the information, which one should generally not do with low-cost independent productions, since the smaller the sum announced the more admiration is engendered. But there is also a stage strategy, Brechtian perhaps, to keep the villains at arm's length.
As the seductions or tentative relationships proceed, there is much ambiguity about who may be sincere or not, and there develops definitely an unforeseen situation which leads the men to lie to each other.
More, I will not reveal, but take my word for it, it is very well handled and, as the trend goes of late, without real closure. It was a hit at the last Sundance Festival, even as many hated its characters, although the news of "very controversial" seem like hype for the more logical "very discussed."
The casting and acting by the lead thespians, not big names but experienced, is superior. Stacy Edwards, who is not deaf, gives a terrific, tour-de-force performance, quiet and entirely convincing
I am a bit confused by the penultimate sequence, when the now demoted (courtesy of his buddy) Howard visits Chad in his new apartment and where something to do with decamped girl friend Suzanne comes up. But setting aside iffy spots, the movie is a powerful indictment of certain men and above all of the mentality that our cutthroat world generates within a corporate society (note the word "company" in the title) where the goal, from Academe to Politics to Zoos, is "get there, keep the job and climb the ladder, no matter how." That's the sad story, not of Chad and Howard, but more generally of Calvin Coolidge's dictum " The business of America is business."