This review was corrected May 19, 2003.
A companion piece to his “Esther Kahn,” but a far more self-reflexive exercise on the mutual contamination of theater and film, Arnaud Desplechin’s “Playing ‘In the Company of Men'” is too remote and intellectual to build much dramatic momentum. Despite a strong cast and some late summoning of power in the final act, this fussily constructed elaboration on British playwright Edward Bond’s 1996 work about cruel business ethics, boardroom power games and family conflict is an unrewarding chore unlikely to play beyond the French director’s hardcore followers.
Bond’s corrosive social criticism in his 1960s and ’70s plays earned him prominence among angry young British dramatists of the time like John Osbourne. Now, however, his work is more regularly performed in France and Germany than at home, which might explain Desplechin’s attraction to the material.
But, that material probably would have been more suited to film treatment as a hard-edged indictment of 1980s corporate greed than as Desplechin’s pretentious play-within-the-same-play-played-offstage variation.
The central story concerns the attempted hostile takeover of an armaments firm. An ambitious son (Sami Bouajila) and his emotionally distant adoptive father (Jean-Paul Roussillon) are pitted against each other and pushed to eventual destruction by manipulative outside forces and traitorous aides.
Shooting docu-style with hand-held cameras in moody tones full of deep shadows, Desplechin coaxes out the narrative as straight drama but intercuts with video footage of the same actors participating in casting meetings, readings and rehearsals of the play.
While reasonably well integrated at first, the device becomes progressively more distracting; it impedes the drama and the characters from fully taking shape and dulls Bond’s denunciation of contemporary society.
Further underlining the Shakespearean dimensions of the tragic piece, Desplechin and co-scripters Nicolas Saada and Emmanuel Bourdieu point during rehearsals to the absence of a female character. They introduce Ophelia (Anna Mouglalis), whose dialogue is lifted directly from “Hamlet.”
Post-modernist theater scholars may have a field day with this, but other audiences will be seeking the exit. The director’s choice to punctuate the action with vintage songs by Brit-pop veteran Paul Weller may make sense as a reference to the playwright’s prime but has little relevance to what’s onscreen.