I'll say this for Neil LaBute: The man sticks to his guns. Critics may carp about his sour vision of human nature, but he keeps plugging away at his micro-studies of the cruel struggle for interpersonal domination.
LaBute is a master of stagecraft, of course; I'm not sure why he works in film at all, other than to broaden his audience. Aside from the substantially more cinematic Nurse Betty, almost all of his movies are essentially stage plays, ably transposed to the screen but with minimal concession to the switch in medium.
LaBute's latest, Some Velvet Morning, was written for the screen, but it might as well be a theatrical exercise. Set on two floors of an urban apartment, it's a handsomely mounted, crisply written, impeccably acted two-hander, and as talky as LaBute's best-known early movies, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. And for all the sunlight streaming in through the windows, it's a tale of horror.
Stanley Tucci, all saturnine cunning with a touch of lost boy, plays Fred, a lawyer (maybe) who arrives with luggage on the doorstep of his former lover (Alice Eve), a beautiful but uncertainly employed young woman whose name may or may not be Velvet.
Though the two haven't been in touch (maybe) for going on four years, Fred breezily announces that he has left his wife of 24 years and is ready to resume whatever he and Velvet had together. The revelation that they first hooked up while Velvet was seeing Fred's son, Chris, sets the tone for a gathering tide of mendacity and betrayal, a verbal death match that makes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sound like an outtake from Modern Family.
And when you think you've heard it all, you haven't heard the half of it. The half you've heard may be half-true, or it may be a pack of lies. Are they saying something true, or winding each other up? Is Velvet really trying to get out of the house for lunch (and more) with someone well-known to Fred, or is she shoveling fuel onto a growing pyre? For that matter, which are the more insidious: Fred's threats of physical force, or Velvet's taunts?
Lord knows, the dialogue has a coruscating force. But LaBute shares with British playwrights Harold Pinter and John Osborne (both, in their way, engorged with the same impotent fury) a feel for the telling beat between sentences, where rage, desire and the impulse to gain the upper hand fester and grow until they explode.
The accelerating vitriol, with its undertow of growing desperation, maps some fairly old-hat terrain of father-son competition, of romantic obsession with a blonde in a red dress, of rape fantasy as the ground zero in the sadomasochistic struggle between man and woman. When Fred and Velvet land on her bed, his head on her backside while she rummages through her busy calendar to find a date to see him again, it's black comedy, not light relief.
LaBute is hardly the first to try to enlighten his audience by alienating it. Certainly there's no need for us to like Fred, or to identify with Velvet, who despite all her maneuvers is hardly an equal partner in their game. "The lesson is the struggle," Fred tells Velvet. That sounds important, and it's certainly relentless, but I don't really understand what it means. Perhaps the twist ending, in which we are invited to revisit Fred and Velvet as artists after their fashion, probes the functions of performance as an expression of our darker natures — and thus a way to preserve civilization by acting them out. Or maybe it's merely saying money buys you a lot of really bad behavior.
Yet I came away from this malevolent exercise with the sense that these two add up to little more than the sum of their awfulness. The shedding of a few anguished tears at the 11th hour does little to mitigate the blah-blah torrent of hate. Like most of LaBute's work, Some Velvet Morning ends as it begins, more clever than wise.