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Film Review: Quiet, unassuming, lonely, handicapped -- she's perfect

In the Company of Men

Written and directed by Neil Labute

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, and Stacy Edwards.

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Hold onto your seats, ladies and gentlemen, for the bulk of In The Company of Men involves two young healthy white-collar workers torturing a handicapped woman.

You might look for relief in the fact that the said torture is purely mental - but you won't find it there. Martin Scorsese had said about his classy period piece The Age of Innocence that it was his most violent movie, and this case is similar.

The plot of In the Company of Men is as as geometrically spare as the visual style the movie employs. Two mid-level office workers, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), working for an unspecific company, travel to an unspecific city on a six-week business trip. Both were recently dumped by their significant others and feeling bitter towards women in general. So they develop a plan: find a lonely, fragile, sensitive, and available woman (all in one package); seduce her (compliments, flowers, small talk, dinners, sex, etc.) and, when the six weeks are over, rudely dump her. They easily find such a woman in Christine (Stacy Edwards), a lonely secretary who also happens to be deaf.

By the time this is established (in the first fifteen minutes or so), the female halves of couples in the audience are looking at their dates with apprehension slowly turning into disgust. However, it should be made clear that this movie is not about men being cruel to women. It's not about men being cruel to men, either (although there are numerous instances of this as well), it's about people being cruel to other people. It is not an accident that the two protagonists are office workers, belonging to the titular "company." It's the workplace ethos of gossip, backstabbing, and demonstrating your superiority in order to survive that made Chad and Howard into what they are. Simply put, it's a Darwinian world out there.

Not that the movie limits itself to exploring this issue (by the way, the phrase "explore the issue" is as much of a cliche as Chad saying to Christine "I want to nurture this relationship and see it blossom"). The ending pulls the rug from under our feet again, and shows that the movie was about something completely different altogether. When we see how these people treat each other, the effect is chilling; when we see the results of such treatment, it's shattering.

Now, I hear the voices saying "Gee, sounds like a fun movie." Well, yes, it is, from one point of view. The acting is impeccable (we know a lot about two main characters before they even speak a single word), the dialogue is sparkling, and the story has a few unexpected plot twists.

On the other hand, it is hardly original. Chad's brilliant seducer is just an updated version of Vicomte De Valmont (there's quite a few similarities with Les Liaisons Dangereuses as well as The Age of Innocence), and the ending echoes La Dolce Vita.

The biggest objection, however, might be that Labute treats his characters precisely the way they treat each other - with disguised contempt, manipulating them to serve the hidden agenda. This probably explains the bad taste in the mouth after watching this movie, not because it shows something we don't know, but because it shows us precisely what we do know.