Neil LaBute is at it again, heartlessly dissecting the sexual mores of modern Americans within a very slender stratum. The writer-director of In the Company of Men has already tried to prove that men cannot be trusted and that women can be manipulated, but the screenplay for his talked-about first effort used all sorts of hedges and straw men that eventually unraveled his powerful premise. With Your Friends & Neighbors, LaBute is essaying a braver probe. He posits two couples in the process of bumping up against their individual neuroses and two singles on the periphery of this dissolution. Shot cleanly in a number of polished big-city locations, this gemlike ensemble piece picks at the scab of infidelity among sophisticated adults and finds the real disease below, an unlovely admixture of neediness and vanity.

In order to keep his characters as anonymous and individualized as anyone’s friends and neighbors—clearly, the real title of this film is Yourselves—LaBute has given his cast joke names. (The script names no names at all, often using awkward contortions to avoid them.) We’ll call, the credits seem to say, Couple A Terri (Catherine Keener) and Jerry (Ben Stiller). He’s a pretentious college drama teacher with an eye for the freshest freshmen girls and a penchant for nonstop nattering in bed that drives his emotionally locked-down girlfriend crazy. If Terri hates to be talked to, Mary (Amy Brenneman) hates to be touched, rolling away from her paunchy, well-meaning husband Barry (Aaron Eckhart, utterly transformed from the chiseled, satanic stud of Company of Men) while he frantically wonders aloud, “It’s me. Is it me?”

Many of these characters’ relationship problems are seen as a function of their personalities—Jerry won’t allow small kindnesses to pass without an embarrassing inquisition, although his own bedroom patter (“We’re in total harmony”) is more nothing than sweet nothings. It’s clear that none of these people should be with any other of these people, so insurmountable are their troubles. LaBute keeps his focus tight so he can prove his argument without any of the messy inconsistencies, contradictions, and exceptions of real life. As in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, the point is to reveal the minute truth of how messed-up people are to each other in small ways. It is a truth that couples and friends act this way, but it is not the truth. LaBute may be putting a sophisticated gloss on Allen’s worst instincts, but in his head this stuff is writ large—a poster for Le Mépris, Godard’s essential rotting-couple tale, haunts Jerry and Terri’s apartment.

Nevertheless, the version of sexual game-playing and rondelets that LaBute posits here unearths some unpleasant, recognizable nuggets. Gender clichés are twisted and smashed; Terri has a man’s attitude toward sex and love—all doing, no talking—while the men want to dissect every aspect of their relationships like secretaries waiting to exhale. Terri’s no-nonsense desire for a compliant lover leads her into the arms of art-gallery employee Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), throwing into discomfiting relief the men’s suspicion of her mannish ways. Cary (Jason Patric) in particular figures Terri for a switch-hitter; he’s just the type who would, a strutting, foul-talking, woman-hating stud who whispers practice between-the-sheets flattery into a cassette recorder and tells Jerry and Barry flabbergasting tales of sexual vengeance. Cary is all the cold-eyed vanity of In the Company of Men’s worldview embodied in one man, and Patric is both chilling and sorrowful in this difficult role.

However worldly the clothes, locales, and professions, the action is still tawdry and cheap: The breathless subterfuge of Jerry and Mary’s affair, the whispered phone calls and nervous registering—luggageless—at swank hotels, the constant undercutting and one-upping are unsavory and childish. The characters may switch partners, but they find themselves enacting the same sexual quirks that annoy their own spouses and keep them from enjoying themselves. Even with Jerry, Mary finds herself in bed with a man saying, “It’s me,” and ranting about Adam and Eve. When Cheri pleads for a kind word from her new lover, Terri says, “You know what I like about making love to you? The silence.”

Repetition is integral to the story—Cheri acts out the exact same introductory dialogue with every character as each comes into the art gallery, all of it a ruse to get something from her. In different configurations, each character asks the others about their “best-ever” sexual experience; it’s as if they can’t imagine anything in between the misery of their own lives and the fantasy of their memories. Cary, the mysterious center of the film, the ace cocksman who never seems to have any sex, tells the most revealing tale. What prompts him to confess it is a mystery, although hints abound—not just the artily obfuscated poster of young buttocks in his bedroom but the film’s association of him with fellow outsider Cheri. Patric easily inhabits the riveting, humorless Cary; all the actors seem to revel in their characters’ petty lousiness—which is great fun, serves LaBute’s purposes, and makes them seem less than human. Only Brenneman brings more to her part than moral rot; Mary’s machinations are more desperate than cruel, and there’s a hurt, judgmental look that veils her eyes even when she allows herself, for the hundredth time, to feel a little hope.

To say that The Avengers is the worst movie ever made is misleading—that sounds as if it’s bad in a recognizable way, the way other bad movies are bad. It’s dumbfoundingly bad, head-clutchingly bad; there are no words for this level of imaginative bankruptcy—shall we let it speak for itself?

It stars Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, two actors known for their static beauty and remoteness, as the sharp-looking and witty-talking Dr. Emma Peel and John Steed. So it should be no surprise that watching them trade repartee is like admiring two shiny new snow globes side by side on a shelf. Their idea of dialogue is I-say-something/you-say-something until the camera guy goes away; they have a flat, overdubbed sound as if they are auditioning. The dialogue consists of coy, leaden clichés that go on forever until you want to throw something at the screen. These two sound actually demented, following up every action near-miss with unwitty cocktail banter that makes them sound not wry and worldly but so stupid they don’t know what just happened to them.

The “class” touches are the arbitrary, made-up inventions of kids playing spy: “The ebony handles [of a fencing epee] are a trifle heavy; I’ll take the rosewood” sort of thing. (The idiot-children motif is continued in Steed’s superiors, a man named Mother and woman named Father.) Peel and Steed talk about tea and macaroons with a kind of fetishistic obsession bordering on mania; what’s in that tea that Steed can’t shut up about it? Is there something that makes him so weak and weedy that when he’s flailing away with an umbrella-sword it seems to weigh about 85 pounds? Does it dull the brain? (“Prospero, Prospero…Shakespeare’s magician,” says Steed; yes, that’s a name very hard to place for anyone with an English education.) When informed that a strange millionaire may be behind this case, Dr. Peel obligingly murmurs, “Intriguing, an eccentric recluse.”

As said recluse, Sean Connery really should stay in more; he’s forced to grumble foul double-entendres in Dr. Peel’s ear. Everything looks blatantly fake: the special weather effects; the leisurely car chase, complete with cups of that damned tea; the actors’ line readings; even Thurman’s figure, which, by the way, is seen silhouetted by that famous catsuit for all of 90 seconds. With very mild tinkering—one angry viewer, the film, and some editing equipment—The Avengers could be a parody of monstrous proportions. But the film’s lack of self-awareness is insurmountable—why else hire comedian Eddie Izzard, known for his verbal brilliance, to play a silent role? The only other reasonable assumption is that Izzard took one look at the script and refused to say any of his lines. Would that they all had made such a wise decision. CP