In the Company of the Queen
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Sanaa Hamri
In 1997, Neil LaBute's directorial debut In the Company of Men hit American theaters. It upset many people, and is considered a disturbing film in general. Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy play corporate types who decide to seduce a deaf woman who works in their office and dump her at the same time to crush her spirit. As usual, LaBute's real intentions were submerged beneath the crudity of the film's finer moments, such as Eckhart's character politely informing the disabled Christine (Stacy Edwards) upon revealing his deception that "I was going to let you down easy, but I can't keep a straight face."
Little did LaBute and company know that thirteen years later their signature satire of corporate nastiness would grow prescient. Or perhaps they did realize this, but since LaBute's about as popular as an outbreak of herpes these days, it just hasn't been said enough. With enough time to appreciate In the Company of Men, it was high time for a remake, preferably with a new ethnicity, like The Karate Kid.
Moroccan music video director Sanaa Hamri has done exactly that with Just Wright. The film, penned by screenwriter Michael Elliot, concerns two women (physical therapist Queen Latifah and professional seductress Paula Patton) who decide to seduce a basketball player and see how far they can take it. It turns out they can take it very far, and no one will think anything of their behavior.
In the Company of Men featured the overbearing, controlling Eckhart in his first major role. LaBute's alpha-male demon was a parody of every me-first dickhead that worked in offices across the country. His negative influence forced a weaker, less attractive colleage into a misogynist gag to make a deaf women feel wanted. In contrast, Just Wright's version of Eckhart's domineering alpha is Patton, whose lies are a lot sweeter and more easily told. If you are able to ignore the fact that Patton is married to Robin Thicke, she is every bit the mirror image clone of the overly sexual Eckhart.
Paula Patton's greatest desire is to marry a rich basketball player. She focuses on the New Jersey Nets for some reason, perhaps not realizing they boast one of the lowest payrolls in the league and will play the next three seasons in Newark. Her godsister is the eponymous Leslie Wright; a woman with a "good personality" who has serious problems meeting the right man. They all think she's a cool pal, perhaps because (or in spite of) her Nets gear.
Anyone who's seen Queen's video for "U.N.I.T.Y." or the comedy she made with Jimmy Fallon more than once knows she can act; her mid-90s FOX sitcom Living Single was among the most underappreciated shows of the decade. She might as well have been a baby when the current proliferation of Tyler Perry-esque comedies began in earnest, and it must be rewarding to see she's on her way to being something of a star in the discipline.
The two conspirators of Just Wright love each other, and when Queen craftily scores an invite to the birthday party of Nets superstar point guard Scott McKnight (Common) by claiming she listens to Joni Mitchell during a "coincidental" meeting at a gas station, this physical therapist is only too pleased to help her friend try to hit on him. And game it up Patton does, basically doing her best Mystery impression and getting Common's attention right away. Soon the two are dating their balls off while Queen waits on the sidelines for the relationship between her superficial friend and her favorite ballplayer to break up.
The basic flaw of In the Company of Men was that no woman would ever fall for the collective charm of these two meatheads. Well, Common's Scott McKnight is the biggest pawn in cinema since Searching for Bobby Fischer. The two women don't bother to fight over him. After Common tears his knee in the All-Star Game, Patton bails on the relationship at the first sign of physical weakness, and Queen steps in to rehabilitate Scott's injured leg. As Queen's Misery-esque obsession grows and deepens, highlighted by her giving him an inspirational and somewhat scary speech before a Game 7 against the Heat, Patton regrets dumping Common and asks him to consider getting back together.
Just Wright argues that women are even better at manipulation and deception than men, because their lies are more likely to be believed. Patton breaks up with Common by leaving the engagement ring he gave her (despite disapproval from Common's mom, Phylicia Rashad) with a note that says Sorry. Common becomes bereft of all human feelings, he can't even be bothered to return Dwight Howard's texts. He shouts at Queen Latifah, who makes no effort to defend her friend and yells at Patton for dumping the salty basketball player. It's a strange development, because instead of telling Common that maybe it's for the best, Queen instantly turns into his every second-of-the-day BFF in order to completely reassure him of his masculinity.
The cruelty of their gag is hammered home in an unforgettable scene. Having completed the better part of his rehab, Common taps on piano keys in one room of his magnificent house. ("Beware of men with secret rooms," Patton tells Queen as she giggles about her fiancée.) Queen approaches with some smores, which Common has been completely unaware existed in the world until this moment. They share a tidy snack. Later, when he gets back together with Patton, she asks him to close the door because his piano playing is becoming too loud. This is B.F. Skinner methodology with the added benefit of inspiring an eating disorder in one of the finest rappers of our time.
After getting dumped by a particularly salacious vertebrate, Neil LaBute realized that the only useful part of love was common interests. He's hammered this home in a succession of ever-worsening films, the catty masterpiece Your Friends and Neighbors, the pathetic but vaguely compelling Nurse Betty, and the movie that made Nicolas Cage's hairline an undeniable fact of life, The Wicker Man. In all of these efforts LaBute tries to reclaim the power he presumably lost when a woman told him he was too hairy. The understated message of In the Company of Men is that some people feel entitled to love.
Queen becomes so important to Common that he restores the classic but broken car she drives from New Jersey into New York to serve at his beck and call. She begins living in his house. They sleep together. He gets her job offers from every NBA organization imaginable, calls come in from legendary trainers like Tim Walsh and Aaron Nelson. Instead of thanking him, she berates him for even considering the idea of taking Paula Patton back.
The most magical thing you can do to anyone is reject them. The burn sticks in some secret place, always ready to flare up again at the slightest hint of acceptance. Objects as innocent as a knee brace or a loaf of bread take on an added significance. Unlike In the Company of Men, Just Wright features a happier ending, suggesting that when women play games with men, it's a lot less mean-spirited. This is probably true enough, but it's not very heartwarming.
"See How Man Was Made" - Josh Ritter (mp3)
"Change of Time" - Josh Ritter (mp3)
"Lark" - Josh Ritter (mp3)