Compared to the misanthropic roundelays that made his reputation back in the 1990s and early aughts, Dirty Weekend, the latest film from Neil LaBute, finds this generally prickly provocateur in a relatively lighthearted mood. Certainly, neither of the two main characters, Les (Matthew Broderick) and Natalie (Alice Eve), do anything extravagantly nasty to each other in the way Aaron Eckhart’s vengefully misogynist business executive in In the Company of Men or Rachel Weisz’s exploitive artist in The Shape of Things behave toward ostensible friends and love interests. Which isn’t to say this is exactly a departure for LaBute. As ever, he’s fascinated with the ways people lie to each other and to themselves, and this time he trains his eye on a prudish man who, we gradually discover, is on a mission to discover what exactly happened one drunken night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a business trip months ago.
For Les, though, it isn’t just about solving a mystery: He’s trying to confirm his sexual identity, because he has vague memories of not only possibly engaging in homosexual intercourse, but maybe even enjoying it as well. This is something he, an otherwise straitlaced businessman with an apparently religious girlfriend, has had trouble dealing with; admitting that he may be gay would burn everything he thought he knew about himself down to the ground. By contrast, Natalie, his assistant, is a lesbian who’s very much comfortable with her sexuality and having openly frank discussions—but even she has her secrets, most of them stemming from the doubts she has about the BDSM relationship she’s currently carrying on in her personal life.
Though LaBute himself has rarely been shy about bringing deep-seated sexual mores out into the open, his touch in Dirty Weekend is lighter than usual. The opening-credits blast of snazzy Catch Me If You Can-style animation set to Joel Goodman’s pastiche of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” sets the cheeky tone: a feeling of somewhat randy intrigue just bubbling under the surface, waiting to pop out. If LaBute films like Your Friends & Neighbors aimed to August Strindberg pitilessness, Dirty Weekend appears to be his attempt at a Woody Allen sophistication. But even Allen at his most misanthropic seems to have learned more about actual filmmaking than LaBute has in 18 years behind the camera: Worse than his blandly functional images is the fact that the early scenes, especially, exude the lumbering feel of watching a filmed stage play, given the canned-feeling interplay between Broderick and Eve.
But then, for all its tackling of topical issues such as homophobia, Dirty Weekend rarely feels like it’s taking place in anything but a screenwriter’s insular simulation of reality—a failing that’s especially embarrassingly evident in the attempts at Albuquerque-related “local” humor sprinkled throughout. Instead, this two-hander feels more like a thesis play in which two glorified pawns are manipulated in order to demonstrate a few hardly revelatory points about how easily people are willing to shield themselves from facing hard truths. LaBute may make the journey toward this inevitable destination easier to handle this time around, but we’ve been down this road with him before.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
You can follow Kenji Fujishima on Twitter here.