As I’ve noted before, I’m a big fan of Neil LaBute’s writing and directing work. His plays-turned-films have incisively probed the dark, uncomfortable corners of the human soul, especially in the relationships between men and women. Even when he departs from his theater-centric roots, he’s on message. Say whatever you will about his remake of The Wicker Man, the gender-segregated neo-pagan community is LaBute all over.
For all the unnervingly biting commentary we’ve come to expect from him, Dirty Weekend comes off almost toothless. Given the title and his history, I’d have expected something closer to another adaptation of Helen Zahavi’s novel. Compared to the gut-punches of In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, this one comes off positively mirthful. I’m not sure yet how to explain this turn in LaBute’s style; maybe Some Velvet Morning cut a little too close to the bone and scared even him a bit.
That’s is not to say LaBute has lost his edge. He’s still pushing at his audience’s notions of propriety and decency, just not quite so savagely as he has in the past. In fact, the most outrageous sentiment he expresses is the idea that unusual, or even “kinky” sex can be part of a normal, healthy, well-adjusted adult’s life. Of course, this is only outrageous in a culture that normally relegates this sort of thing to the shockingly outré Nymphomaniac or the middle-school giggles of Fifty Shades of Grey. Nobody but LaBute seems willing to approach sex as something normal human adults do, sometimes as weirdly and awkwardly as we do anything else. Nobody is making a sex comedy where sex is not the joke.
And so as uptight and fidgety as Les Moore (Matthew Broderick) comes off about a past indiscretion, the gag is always that he’s uptight about it, not that he slept with someone he met at a bar on a business trip. When he and his co-worker Natalie Hamilton (Alice Eve, the first actress to work with LaBute again) find their plane forced to land in Albuquerque, he tries to break away from her to return to the bar from the last time he was in town, but to no avail. She coaxes the details out of him — at least those he can remember — in part by revealing a few secrets of her own.
Now, everyone’s sex life is their own business, and even discussing it among friends can be dangerous. The steam-room scene in Your Friends & Neighbors should have made that point abundantly clear, if nothing else. But if you want to learn more about your colleagues beyond their work habits, sex would make a terrifyingly fast way to start. LaBute probes this unusual and uncomfortable territory between Les and Natalie deftly, and without resorting to the cheap gimmick of steering them towards each other.
Les’ anxiety as his normally conservative demeanor is stripped away with each recovered detail is an obvious draw, but Natalie’s subtler struggle with the constraints of her own personal life is no less fascinating. Les is a variant on the standard Broderick character we’ve come to love. Natalie is another step in our growing understanding of Eve’s talent.
Unfortunately, as interesting as his latest interrogation of sexual mores can be, LaBute never really goes for the jugular the way he has in the past. The result is likely to be more palatable to a wider audience than his earlier, more cynical films, but it’s somewhat less satisfying to his long-time devotees.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.