Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Bad date-movie alert: This poison-pen letter to modern lovers fulfills the promise of writer-director Neil LaBute's controversial debut, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, which is to say that the fights should start well before the end credits roll. The

friends and neighbors are two couples -- married Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), and unmarried Terri (Catherine Keener) and Jerry (Ben Stiller) -- plus bachelor Cary (Jason Patric), for whom dating is a blood sport, and wildcard Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), who crosses paths with all

of them. Both couples are painfully mismatched, in bed and out: Terri and Jerry bicker constantly, even during sex, while Mary and Barry avoid squabbles by talking in platitudes and avoiding troublesome subjects. Cary brings out the inner scumbag in both his buddies -- especially Barry -- and two

affairs start the relationship dominoes falling, while the fools in love gently tear each other limb from limb. Where IN THE COMPANY OF MEN suffered from uneven performances, this dyspeptic emotional peep show benefits from the services of a top-notch and beautifully matched cast. The horror of

LaBute's articulate, self-deluded characters is that they're both sharply drawn and just vague enough that you can insert face here: They never address each another by their sound-alike names, the city where they live is conspicuously unidentified, their jobs are vague but give off a

certain urban cachet: businessman, medical professional, writer, actor, gallery assistant. And they're all masters of the emotional surgical strike, though Patric -- who also served as producer -- has the flashiest role. Should he want to pursue the role of Patrick Bateman in American

Psycho, his performance as Cary would serve as a fine (if mercifully bloodless) audition piece: The scene in which he drop-kicks an anatomical model of a fetus is simply chilling.