Angered, strained jazz with a swift, pelted drum opens In the Company of Men with a crescendo of madness. Such a strong entrance must be capitalised on, not petered out to make way for the disparaging, obvious differences between the two leading men. But that is the inherent problem for this Neil LaBute feature. It builds itself up with a bulk of brilliance and then cannot amount to anything more than just, well, disappointing notions of character studies. If you open your film with a beat that brings out an enticing introduction, then the conversation and characters that follow should be at that same beat, that same energy presented in the fine notes of terror. At least their dialogue is interesting, just far less observant than the music is.
Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy are in the business of rewarding performances, and they at least manage as much with In the Company of Men. Eckhart is the typically charismatic, good-looking businessman with a penchant for misogyny and a hatred of anything that doesn’t fall within his brief and limited purview. Malloy is the other side of that inevitably basic coin. A shyster, surprised and excited by the niceties of those around him, and easily conned into believing the confidence and charm Eckhart presents. While LaBute uses this night and day difference to explore the variant styles of masculinity, its cliché tone and inevitable straight-shot towards a tightly wound, obvious ending, really deflates the opportunity presented by these excellent performances.
Neither man had it so good after. Eckhart may have portrayed charismatic men all his career, but In the Company of Men has some real, gut-punching purpose behind it. Thank You for Smoking has the benefit of satire, but what LaBute does for Eckhart here is pair him with a performer who can present him the nodding-dog sidekick these hypermasculine infants feed off of so frequently. Their conversations flutter through the backs of taxi cabs, restaurants and airport waiting rooms. LaBute shoots himself in the foot, though. His intense focus on dialogue may be beneficial to Eckhart, but it means the direction is minimised to its core elements. Shot-reverse-shot predictability and an uncomfortably dated décor surround this pairing of barely palatable characters. It is the intensity of conversation found within My Dinner with Andre but its conversations of art and meaningful living are replaced with brutally dense fantasy, unfortunately inflicted onto those within the real world.
Had these protagonists been any less palatable, In the Company of Men would have been more grating than grateful of its character study abilities. There are those moments that go overboard, as Eckhart dominates much of the time with a confident performance, but not the dialogue to often back it up. Chad (Eckhart) talks of the women Howard (Malloy) dreams of, and how she is out there in the real world. But inevitably, it feels rather bleak and uncomfortable, not in a way that LaBute wishes to create, but in a style that never crosses the mind of these simple-minded characters, and the characteristics they embody.