WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Cynical businessmen Chad and Howard use a six-week work assignment as an excuse to test out their manliness by dating, and then dumping, a vulnerable woman. Deaf typist Christine appears to be a perfect candidate but predictably, complications ensue. As Howard falls in love with Christine and she falls for Chad’s charms, how can the situation resolve itself without a great deal of upset? Or maybe that’s the idea all along…
Those who take offence at the phrase “all men are bastards” are best advised to stay away from In the Company of Men, an uncompromising black comedy from first-time director Neil La Bute. For it not only exposes the male-filled, corporate world as a breeding ground of testosterone-fuelled misogyny, but contains one of the most extreme specimens of chauvinism you are ever likely to see.
His name is Chad (Aaron Eckhart), a suave, self-assured businessman on his way to set up a new office with old schoolfriend and colleague Howard (Matt Malloy). For their own reasons, each is finding work incompatible with successful relationships, Chad having broken up with his partner Suzanne and Howard experiencing trouble with an ex-fiancée. Fearing that women are gaining control over their lives, Chad hits on a plan to make them feel better: find a vulnerable woman, have both himself and Howard date her for the six weeks they’re in town, and then simply drop her like a stone when it’s time to leave.
Somewhat reluctantly Howard agrees to go along with the plan, and they find the perfect target in Christine (Stacy Edwards), a deaf typist whose vocal mannerisms Chad mocks mercilessly, while being a perfect gentleman to her face. In contrast, Howard doesn’t find chatting Suzanne up comes naturally; but when they do date, he finds himself ever more attracted to her and even starts learning sign language to get to know her better. This attention to detail comes at the expense of his performance in the workplace, however; and in any event his wooing is destined to come to nothing as Christine falls for Chad, despite Howard’s efforts to get him out of the way. It also seems as though Chad is really falling in love with Christine, but Howard, spurned and angry, ensures that the truth will out.
The company where both men work is an insanely macho place, and the corporate setting of this nasty variation of Pygmalion works really well. The important people – all male – are virtually clones of each other, all wearing white shirts and patterned ties and constantly denigrating their colleagues. In this arena being the ‘big swinging dick’ is the be-all-and-end-all, and Chad is an alpha-male to an almost psychotic degree (though not quite at American Psycho levels), not afraid to humiliate people wherever and whenever necessary (he revels in an awkward sequence with a black employee).
Aaron Eckhart plays the part perfectly, able to horrify the audience with offensive anti-female jokes one minute and appear perfectly sincere in his wooing of Christine the next. As a hateful and hate-filled character, we really should be wishing him dead; but he retains a demonic, self-assured charm that ensures he remains fascinating, even as he reveals himself – several times – to be the worst kind of bastard.
Opposite him, Malloy’s clunky, needy, inadequate Howard is simultaneously an object of derision and pity, and the scene in which he confesses his and Chad’s scheme to Christine is both devastating and awkward; but both the actors and the script make the unravelling of the relationships strangely compelling. As the unwitting bait in the men’s trap, Stacy Edwards has less to do than the others, but her quiet gestures are effective and her portrayal of a deaf woman (she isn’t) is particularly convincing.
Much of the film put me in mind of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and while this is generally a compliment to Neil La Bute’s work, it also hints at a few problems. Like the older film, In the Company of Men betrays its roots as originating on the stage in the small number of sets, the static nature of the action and the pervasive talking where a more experienced director might have introduced some more obviously cinematic elements. Also, the division of the film into ‘weeks’ interrupts the flow of the film, again making the film appear like a series of scenes from a theatrical production rather than something designed for the screen. Since Eckhart is so magnetically horrible in the lead role, none of these things really detract from the enjoyment – if that’s the word – of the film; yet it would not be true to say that they go by unnoticed.
I approached In the Company of Men with some trepidation, since a brief description of the film – two businessmen plot to humiliate a handicapped woman – sounds completely sick. However, even if there aren’t many real Chads in the world, I have no doubt that there are some; and the dedicated, raw performances of Eckhart, Malloy and Edwards, combined with La Bute’s wicked words, make the film a gripping if awfully uncomfortable watch.