Acclaimed and highly discussed filmmaker Neil LaBute has made himself a force to be reckoned with and a name to watch. With his true-to-life cynical and self-absorbed characters and all-too-true social themes, he has firmly established himself as an unforgiving judge of the ugliest side of human nature.
LaBute was originally a playwright. He attended Brigham Young University and took theater as his major. Many say that Pulitzer-Prize winner David Mamet was a strong influence on him. He chose to attack subjects that many people don’t really want to talk about and showed the way that people really talk among themselves. His first stage piece, an off-off-Broadway play which was entitled “Filthy Talk for Troubled Times”, debuted in 1989 and it featured two men just sitting around a bar and making small talk and ridiculing women, minorities, homosexuals and their ways, in a manner not unlike the conversations in his In the Company of Men (1997). The foul-mouthed play was, not unsurprisingly, a hit with the critics.
After LaBute graduated from the University of Kansas and New York University, he got a scholarship to London’s Royal Court Theatre in the US in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Then he got into cinema. He made his films like his plays: showing characters just sitting and talking and revealing how evil, scared, ignorant, arrogant, emotionally wounded, delusional, disillusioned and cynical they are.
LaBute made his first major mark with the low-budget (and frighteningly realistic) cautionary fable In the Company of Men (1997), about two sexist male office co-workers fed up with what they believe is the way women have taken over American society and how it is no longer a man’s world. They set out to find a vulnerable woman – one looking for male attention – and wine her, dine her, then cruelly dump her, just to gain some “dignity” for their gender. Shot for $25,000 in less than two weeks, the film won the Sundance Filmmaker’s trophy, awards for LaBute’s screenplay and the star Aaron Eckhart’s performance as a heartless and misogynist creep with ambition and cockiness to spare.
His next movie and sophomore cinema effort, Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), was considerably less well-received (a casualty of what is often referred to as “the sophomore jinx”). The film was about a group of six very different, but misanthropic people (three men and three women) connected by their relationships; when unhappy in them, they begin to shamelessly lie and cheat on one another with their lovers, and even with their friends. The movie got some strong reviews, but other reviewers felt LaBute was pretty much repeating himself. The prevailing attitude seeming to be that this time he had made an entire movie with all of its characters being nothing but villains, so why should anyone care about or want these six unlikable people to ever find happiness?
Nurse Betty (2000) was LaBute’s next directorial effort, from a script he didn’t write himself. It was was a radical departure from LaBute’s other work, about a sweet-natured waitress obsessed with a particular soap opera and especially the show’s star, George McCord (Greg Kinnear). The film received the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Screenplay trophy for its authors. Renée Zellweger was honored with a Golden Globe Award. LaBute had finally made a good-nature, mainstream film, and a damn good one, but he didn’t spend ALL his time basking – he had put out several other things that year, such as a TV movie based on his “Bash” plays and another original work entitled Tumble (2000), none of which got wide recognition.
In 2002 LaBute got himself noticed again with another less-caustic movie – a costume period piece called Possession (2002), based on the best-selling novel, which many believed to be about his love for early English culture. It starred LaBute stalwart Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow, who specializes in having the most authentic sounding British accent around. It wasn’t a huge box-office success, but it did have many fervent admirers.
In 2003 LaBute brought to the screen another adaptation of his own work, a play he wrote and directed and had performed in England. He brought his original cast (Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller) back to appear in this one. It was entitled The Shape of Things (2003), about how a seductive art student, named Evelyn, takes Paul, a nerdy, insecure, out-of-shape guy, and begins molding him to look more and more desirable, much to the confusion of his friends. He enjoys being desirable, but is unaware of where all this remodeling will lead as Evelyn gets more and more possessive and controlling.
With pieces like “In the Company of Men” and Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), LaBute has proven that he has his hand on the pulse and minds of everyday and ordinary people (not heroes or villains), just average people who sound and behave horribly for no reason, and you cringe all the more because you know and identify with those characters. With “Nurse Betty” and “Possession”, however, LaBute has shown that he has more than just one really incredibly note. He’s no one-hit wonder. Here is a man whose entire body of work should be watched and studied by all.