“I feel … I feel bad,” a character in Your Friends & Neighbors confesses after it is discovered that he had an affair with his best friend’s wife. If he were a kindred spirit destructed by the seductive wiles of a Lana Turner type then maybe we would believe him. But as the spillage follows antics that can only be described as sociopathic, his guilty feelings are obviously crocodilian. He doesn’t feel bad for betraying his friend; he feels bad that he was caught in the betrayal. He pities himself.
The characters of Your Friends & Neighbors are terrible people: intelligent, attractive, and high functioning, egregiously narcissistic. The fact that nearly all of them are in a relationship as the film opens is a miracle; not surprising, though, is the reality that all the relationships are in the process of self-destroying because of their atrocious selfishness. To watch them move through life, not realizing just how terrible of people they are, is besettingly watchable. It’s hate-viewing of high intellect.
Because it’s impossible not to dislike them: when they aren’t talking bullshit over fine wine and false confidence, they pass the days committing heinous acts of greed. It centers on two couples, Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), Terri (Catherine Keener) and Jerry (Ben Stiller), both of whom live in various states of self-involvement. The sharp-tongued Terri is considering breaking up with drama teacher Jerry, who’s uncomfortably vocal in bed and feels the need to consistently analyze her feelings. But instead of moving on, she begins having an affair with art gallery assistant Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), while Jerry, in turn, attempts to pursue their good friend Mary, the wife of his best friend, Barry.
Barry, in the meantime, is hesitant to admit to Mary that he’s sexually dissatisfied; like Kanye West, his biggest pleasures derive from himself. He believes Mary is happy, unsuspecting, when she, in actuality, is miserable. She gives into Jerry’s flirting almost immediately, not because she necessarily wants to have an affair but because she can. Tying their sins together is Cary (Jason Patric), a mutual friend of the group so sadistic that their frivolous wrongdoings seem tame by comparison.
Your Friends & Neighbors is essentially a good movie about bad people, distinctly aware of its cruelty but endlessly fascinating in its irony and its spite. The characters are all detestable, but in fluctuating shades: Mary is the good girl who makes awful decisions almost accidentally, while Barry, a follower, is too in love with himself to notice; Terri is a misanthrope without an empathetic bone in her body, and Jerry, a bratty man-child, figures rejection has nothing to do with him. Most grotesque, however, is Cary, who finds pleasure by cruelly dumping young women following one-night stands and graphically berating the femmes who deny his come-ons. The only sympathetic one in the bunch is Cheri, who wants to find love that consumes her; maybe she’d be more successful if she didn’t associate herself with humans wearing snake skin for cover.
Neil LaBute, in his second feature, studies their relationships with eyes biased by contempt, understanding of their miniature evils and understanding that such emotional disregard can only be met with the bitchiest stabs of karma. His writing is impeccable, deceivingly neat on the surface but complicatedly perceptive underneath all the cerebral sheen. The actors, immaculately cast, embody his blackly humorous acrimonies with such conviction that the sad fact that none of these characters know just how bad of people they are becomes almost terrifying. Who knows what other emotional massacres they’ll cause in the future?
Your Friends & Neighbors is the Carnal Knowledge of the 1990s, looking at relationships not with the romanticized filter of the cinema but with the melancholic sensibilities of everyday life. Some people find their soulmates with the snap of a finger, some wait years, and some never find anyone to relate to; most are unlucky, but some, like the characters of Your Friends & Neighbors, drive everyone away with their maliciousness. It’s a cold, depressing film hard to enjoy; fortunately, it engages