In writer/ director Neil LaBute’s new comedy-drama, work colleagues Natalie Havington (Alice Eve) and Les Moore (Matthew Broderick) have their LA to Dallas flight grounded in Albuquerque. Les, uptight and with his right arm in a sling after shoulder surgery, is cranky. Natalie, who is British, is cool, calm, and collected. The two, polar opposites, get to know one another during their layover, but they most certainly do not fall in love.
After some routine formalities about the delay that set the stage of this talky, stagy film, the plot kicks into gear. Les is hoping to sneak away (without Natalie) and revisit the scene of a one-night stand he had in Albuquerque a few months back. He is trying to come to terms with that experience which — it is revealed over the course of the film — involved anal sex. Natalie, in contrast, who is generally as closed-up as her turtleneck, admits she has a girlfriend. Their relationship, she explains, has some peculiar arrangements, something Les tries to understand.
LaBute makes these characters and their sexual peccadilloes intriguing enough for viewers to be drawn into “Dirty Weekend.” As a playwright and filmmaker, he uses words carefully and deliberately for dramatic and comic effect. We learn quickly what makes Les uncomfortable. He says, “It’s all fun and games until somebody sticks a spear in your ass,” but then has a strange encounter with a smoke shop cashier, who tells him that what he wants is “in the rear.” When Natalie discusses “sex in the ass” in public with Les, he visibly bristles.
Neil LaBute explores sexual secrets in “Dirty Weekend”
The ping-pong nature of Les and Natalie’s dialogue is well done, with LaBute employing shot-reverse-shot editing that captures the rat-a-tat-tat of their exchanges. He does less well, however, using long shots, in one instance risking the loss of a laugh line when Les, on the phone with his motor-mouth wife, says, “Have you heard of ‘word in edgewise?’”
The script’s precision overemphasizes Les’ so-called “gay panic,” but there is a point here. He has to work hard not to use the word “gay” in talking to a cabdriver and bartender about Zorro, the bar where he hopes to reconnect with the person he had sex with months ago. The possibly bi-curious Les is not only hobbled by the harness on his shoulder, he also wears anxiety on his sleeve.
LaBute never judges his characters, but they are very critical of themselves. Les and Natalie wrestle with honesty and deception in ways that raise themes of morality, shame, and privacy at the heart of their sexual hang-ups. When Les admits he can find a man attractive without being gay, he keeps talking, trying to justify his thoughts to himself and Natalie, who listens attentively, but rolls her eyes. Broderick is fine when typecast as a fidgety milquetoast, but here he is best in those few moments when he injects a bit of mischievousness into Les, such as a scene in Zorro’s men’s room where he tries to diffuse an uncomfortable situation.
Eve, who starred in LaBute’s last theatrical release, “Some Velvet Morning,” plays Natalie with considerable élan, being alternately polite, feisty, and exasperated. “Dirty Weekend” is less focused on Natalie, which is a shame since her mysteriousness and allure are appealing. She talks about a power struggle with her girlfriend, but this is a tease since we never learn much about that. Her journey, instead, is signified by her letting her hair down in Zorro and becoming warmer and softer. She is largely a foil to provoke Les into exploring his sexuality; her desires remain underexplored.
Meanwhile, as Les discovers the truth about “that night” and his own sexual identity, “Dirty Weekend” throws in some kinky twists that put the queer in “Albu-queer-que.”
DIRTY WEEKEND | Directed by Neil LaBute | eOne | Opens Sep. 4 | Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com