In the Company of Men (1997)
Directed by: Neil LaBute
Premise: Two businessmen (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) decide to victimize a deaf female receptionist (Stacy Edwards) by simultaneously courting her with dinner dates and flowers with the intention of getting up her self-esteem only to shatter it with a coordinated double break up.
What Works: When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, In the Company of Men caused a stir with accusations that the film was misogynist. This is an understandable but inaccurate assessment of the movie. In the Company of Men stars at least one character who is a full throated misogynist and there is a lot of misogyny on display in the story but depiction is not endorsement and the filmmakers are not celebrating the ideas and actions of their lead male characters. As its very title implies, In the Company of Men is really about a culture of poisonous masculinity and the power relationships therein; misogyny is an inextricable element of that ideology. The story focuses on the relationship between two male executives who are in town for six weeks on business, one an aggressive alpha male, played by Aaron Eckhart, and the other a more passive beta played by Matt Malloy. Eckhart’s character is the gregarious, masculine bro but it is revealed early on that his enfeebled cohort is actually in charge of the project. As Eckhart’s character leads the two of them on a side project to seduce a shy secretary, their work life is complicated and as the film delves into the relationship between these men it also caricatures the larger web of relationships between men in a masculine corporate culture. Although it is not as pronounced as movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Psycho, the corporate environment of In the Company of Men is a professional frat house, and this film address some of the same issues as Martin Scorsese and Mary Harron’s films and in some ways does them better. Because the film is about a complex series of relationships and much of the intent of the movie is in the subtext, In the Company of Men benefits from second and third screenings. This is the kind of movie that requires careful viewing but the attention is rewarded by the subtleties of the storytelling and the magnificent performances.
What Doesn’t: In the Company of Men is not an easy movie to watch. Part of its difficulty is the way in which the filmmakers subvert the expectations of a story like this. There are some parallels to be made between In the Company of Men and My Fair Lady in that both are about a wager by men to put one over on an unsuspecting female and in the course of the story one of these men succumbs to virtue. However, the key difference between In the Company of Men and My Fair Lady is in the way the films conform to audience expectations. The story of My Fair Lady ultimately fulfills the expectations of a romantic comedy in which love triumphs over all and some basic good about humanity is validated. In the Company of Men deliberately subverts that optimism. This is a story of horrible people who say and do horrible things to one another; the movie does not send the viewer up the aisle with any hope. In the Company of Men is also difficult to watch because it isn’t very cinematic. The film was adapted from a stage play and that becomes obvious in the filmmaking. A lot of the scenes in this movie take place in master shots with very little movement of the camera or the characters. The movie is also very talky. Audiences expect films to convey their story through movement but almost every plot beat and moment of character development occurs through dialogue. The movie works fine this way but because the filmmakers defy audience expectation the film can be challenging to watch.
DVD extras: Commentary track and trailer.
Bottom Line: In the Company of Men is not an easy film to watch but the emotional punch of the movie is exactly why it works as well as it does. The controversy that the film sparked in 1997 may have been a sign of how close this film was to its mark and the parts of it that are upsetting are also the most illuminating.
Episode: #493 (June 1, 2014)