Neil LaBute's latest is a mannered, disappointingly tame comedy of sexual desire and denial.
There was a time when a Neil LaBute film titled “Dirty Weekend” might have promised a veritable buffet of social and sexual provocations, but middle-aged perspective and a handful of semi-mainstream missteps have arguably tempered the erstwhile enfant terrible. As it is, things get more dusty than dirty in this minor-key comedy of desire and denial, in which a pair of business-trip associates (Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve) platonically test each other’s boundaries over the course of a one-day layover in Albuquerque. Airless visual treatment and mannered performances compound the impression that LaBute might have been better off saving this material for the stage, though it’d be a pretty tame trifle in either context. Commercial prospects exceed those of his previous pic, the Eve-starring “Some Velvet Morning,” but only just.
A 1960s-style animated credit sequence, playing on public-service symbols and backed by Joel Goodman’s cheery lounge-jazz score, sets a jaunty pace for the proceedings, though it’s a misleading one. LaBute trades in tonal and narrative misdirection, and an arch, pause-filled introductory exchange between protagonists Les (Broderick) and Natalie (Eve) makes it clear that, even as “Dirty Weekend” investigates the possibility of heedless pleasure, the film is not itself a romp. The title is a British euphemism for a sex-oriented getaway between unmarried partners — though again, true to the film’s evasive spirit, that’s not exactly what’s in the cards here.
Certainly, our first glimpse of argyle-sweatered nebbish Les and sleek, statuesque Natalie doesn’t suggest much of a carnal connection between them, and in that sense, we aren’t being deceived. Grounded in Albuquerque when their flight from Los Angeles to Dallas — for a joint corporate presentation that is never specified — runs into heavy weather, the two are forced to spend more time together than they otherwise would, while their respective erotic explorations take different courses. If Les, a cowed family man, seems inordinately aggravated by the disruption, a reason soon emerges for his over-protesting: It would appear that a previous trip to the city resulted in something of a sexual epiphany, though he claims to have forgotten the details of the alcohol-blurred tryst.
Having wheedled this much information out of him, Natalie takes it upon herself to unblock his memory. Like the audience, she assumes that Les’s indiscretion was of a homosexual nature, though he bleatingly insists otherwise. Natalie, meanwhile, has a secret sex life of her own: Beneath her chic black turtleneck lies a leather bondage collar signifying her submissive relationship to a long-term girlfriend. Both at least potentially gay and both domineered by their partners at home, the unlikely allies therefore have more in common than meets the eye, though neither seems entirely willing to acknowledge it. Brashly open-minded when pressing Les for private information, Natalie turns more guarded when the tables are turned on her. It’s a promising setup for wry mind games, but LaBute’s verbally knotty script doesn’t push its characters all that far out of their depth: Les’s neurotic bi-curiosity is played for easy laughs, while even the unexpected kink in the outcome of his investigation seems more a compromise than a personal revelation.
Broderick has played this kind of overwhelmed stuffed-shirt figure before, and hits many of the comic beats you’d expect here, though his fidgety handling of LaBute’s more circuitous monologues is a little overworked. Playing the more complicated character, with less to hide but perhaps more to reveal, Eve is more at home in LaBute’s brittle universe. Evoking ’90s-era Nicole Kidman in certain scenes, her deliberate cut-glass delivery lends inquisitive wit to one-liners that otherwise lack a bit of sting — it’s a shame that the script takes so much more interest in Broderick’s character than hers in the final third. In what’s largely a two-hander, Gia Crovatin and Phil Burke make keen impressions in shorthand roles, the latter’s gabby-cabbie character seemingly imported from a far broader farce.
The theatrical energy of the piece is heightened by the stylized neon gaudiness of Mark Duran’s production design and, more crucially, LaBute’s decision with longtime d.p. Rogier Stoffers to shoot mostly in long, wide takes, often giving viewers the sense that they’re eavesdropping on illicit conversations from a distance. It’s a technique that has a less liberating effect on the actors than one might expect, giving the exercise a somewhat boxed-in feel; its difficult for editor Joel Plotch, meanwhile, to sustain the pic’s comic charge.