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As another indictment of the male animal and American business ethics, Neil Labute's In the Company of Men pretty much has it all. The playwright/filmmaker claims--rather coyly, I think--that this pitch-black tragicomedy about a pair of self-absorbed yuppie buddies who hatch a plot to exploit a beautiful deaf woman for their own foul purposes is a kind of measuring stick for the audience's social and sexual attitudes. But there's nothing ambiguous about these two ruthless young misogynists. The strapping mastermind, Chad (Aaron Eckhart), oozes the transparent charm of a snake-oil salesman. His sneaky little accomplice, Howard (Matt Malloy), is a spineless wimp who's carried along by the nose. There's not a mixed message in either one of them--not even in the pangs of guilt or unexpected surges of feeling that eventually bubble up from a most peculiar love triangle.

Independent filmmakers like Labute (author of such plays as Filthy Talk for Troubled Times and Rounder) rightly make it their business to stir things up, and this movie is bound to be a hot topic of conversation in the espresso bars and art-house lobbies. For one thing, it juggles black comedy and dead seriousness, always keeping us a little off-stride. For another, it tries to out-Glen Garry David Mamet (and retire the Willy Loman Trophy) with its vision of the corporate battleground as a snake pit. For a third, it portrays its men as primitive throwbacks with no prayer of moving up the evolutionary ladder--despite their college degrees and neatly pressed white collars.

These are familiar provocations--rampant testosterone and amoral betrayal--but Labute's nasty little drama works pretty well as drama, even though it's another case of a visually inert playwright who doesn't mind letting his characters simply stand in front of the camera and talk. What these rock-ribbed sexists say and do is vicious enough to keep the movie's fires burning.

For instance: "Let's hurt somebody." That's the feckless Chad's modus operandi, and in Eckhart (a classmate of Labute's at, of all places, Brigham Young University), he has found an actor capable of yuppie despicability that surpasses anything the past master of the art, James Spader, has ever brought to the screen. Sent by his unnamed company to spend six weeks in an unnamed branch office to complete an amorphous business project, our conniver insists on doing double duty. Furious at political correctness and perceived inequities in the workplace, Chad goads the malleable Howard, his old college pal (and now his immediate boss), into a cruel game. As an act of vengeance ("Men like us are doomed!" he squawks), they'll both prey upon the same vulnerable woman and humiliate her in the end.

Their victim is the lovely and straightforward secretary Christine (Stacy Edwards), whose deafness prevents her from reading the falsehood in their voices and whose small-town insecurities make her the perfect pawn. Chad's manipulations are nothing less than sexual fascism and will prove discomfiting to any man with a conscience. But sidekick Howard is an even creepier figure. Weak as well as cruel, he's bound to be the loser in the boys' awful game of one-upmanship, especially when he inevitably wants to change the rules. Thumbs down on little Howie, too.

Once we get past the early black comedy, In the Company of Men proves a thankless task for the male leads--who would admire Hitler if he were a great Hamlet?--but it's a stone heartbreaker for Edwards. Her Christine is a picture of shining beauty, good-heartedness and intelligence. Anyone would fall in love with her. But is it a stretch that she'd go for either one of these villains? Maybe, but this is a film with more than a few get-out-of-town inaccuracies in the human-behavior department. The most memorable and sure-to-be-argued one has to be the scene in which our boy Chad, ever the dedicated control freak, first insults a young black intern for his street pronunciations of a couple of words, then demands that the underling demonstrate--literally--that he has the balls to get the corporate job done. Allowances for satire and surrealist license aside, the notion that the intern (Jason Dixie) actually pulls down his zipper and shows the boss his goods (instead of tossing him through the nearest window) probably says more about Labute's jaundiced take on the business world pecking order than it does the realities of life. The sins and indignities of corporate culture are still an easy target, and Labute delights in blasting away with all the firepower he can muster--even to the kind of elliptical dialogue the aforementioned Mr. Mamet has made maddeningly famous, from American Buffalo to Oleanna.

Labute may see his film as a kind of social inkblot test, but only the most hardened male chauvinist pig (or the biggest, baddest dog in the Fortune 500) is likely to read it as anything but what it is--another hopping-mad claim that American men (especially American businessman) have lost their moral bearings. They are underdeveloped frat boys, it says here, with an insatiable taste for blood sport. They are grossly incapable of true feeling and, even when they are, lack the courage to make that feeling stick.

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