Since his 1997 filmmaking debut with In the Company of Men, the rap on writer/director Neil LaBute is that he’s misogynistic – or to be less judgmental, that he’s rather too comfortable portraying misogyny and other forms of “bad” behavior in his various films and plays. These have come to include the frequently nasty but often compelling Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty, The Shape of Things, the remake of The Wicker Man, and most recently Dirty Weekend, which LaBute both wrote and directed.
Certainly LaBute’s view of human nature is far from rosy, but judging by Dirty Weekend I’d say the bigger problem is that it’s reductively simplistic. The two main characters in the film, played by Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve, are amusing and articulate, but they are essentially stick figures who are driven and defined almost exclusively by their sexual secrets. When these are revealed about midway through the film, it’s as if the striptease artist had shed all her garments at once, and then just stood around marking time until the music ended.
Dirty Weekend pairs work colleagues Les (Broderick) and Natalie (Eve) on a day-long unscheduled layover. They’re on their way to Dallas for a presentation but weather has stalled them in Albuquerque. By chance, fate, or screenwriting necessity, however, it’s not married guy Les’ first time in the city, and he’s haunted by barely remembered sexcapades, performed with sex partner(s) he’s too drunk to remember clearly, that took place during his last visit.
After interminable (though frequently funny) stalling, and prodded by his ostensibly less puritanical British co-worker Natalie, they visit the (gasp!) gay bar Zorro, the starting point for Les’ brief, blacked-out encounter months before. Natalie, a lesbian in a constricting dom-sub relationship, discovers the liberating effects of a little flirting/cheating there, and Les gets the answers to questions he’s probably sorry he asked. Relief when he again meets his former pick-up and discovers that she’s a beautiful woman, albeit a pay-for-play one, turns to dismay when she reveals that their previous encounter was actually an MMF threesome. I won’t reveal more but suffice it to say that LaBute has a few more nasty tricks up his sleeve.
Even with such titillating details, it’s not much in the way of a plot for a 93-minute movie, so LaBute fills in the waiting time with a lot of precise, rather stylized dialogue. This can be very funny, particularly the prickly/polite exchanges between Les and Natalie. (After hearing that Natalie attended Cambridge, Les dryly comments: “Cambridge. My safety school.”) There are also digressions with a none-too-bright cab driver played by Phil Burke, who has recently discovered Shakespeare through the medium of graphic novels such as “Henry Vee”.
Dirty Weekend plays almost like a Theater of the Absurd stage play, where true communication is impossible no matter how many words one uses. Yet there’s also a reminder of Neil Simon at his worst, with Broderick and Eve speaking in the same rhythms for the sake of a joke, character consistency and motivation be damned.
Let me concede that LaBute isn’t making a realistic drama/character study – more of a satirical fable about the pleasures and perils of taking a walk on the wild side. It’s significant that neither Les’ nor Natalie’s significant others back in Los Angeles are seen or even heard on the phone – we only get the visible characters’ sides of their conversations. Even a hint that the people they are cheating on are real would give the story a depth it couldn’t sustain. But the ultimate effect is flat and without real impact, despite the wit and the filmmaking skill on display. (Broderick is often shown in long shots, lost in the distance and yet alone and trapped by bland structures like a hotel hallway or ballroom.)
The actors do fairly well, particularly considering how one-note they are as written. This is Broderick in his mildly rebellious Leo Bloom nebbish mode (as opposed to his annoyingly cocksure Ferris Bueller mode), and I personally am getting rather tired of it. I’d love to see if Broderick could play a steely-eyed killer who is only a schlemiel on the surface, rather than endless variations on this lost man-child.
I’m not familiar with Eve’s other work but she displays good comic timing and brings a shade of nuance to her character here. As for the film, Dirty Weekend is a ticklish tease with a too-mild payoff.