*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Love and art and betrayal, played out in raw form by writer-director Neil LaBute.
In anybody else's movie, the "meet cute" of the main characters in "The Shape of Things" -- when radical art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is about to deface a statue in a campus museum, but is stopped by Adam (Paul Rudd), the bumbling student security guard -- would be the beginning of a sweet, off-center romantic comedy.
This is a Neil LaBute movie, so off-center is a given but sweet doesn't even factor into it.
The characters in "The Shape of Things" come from the same sensibility that LaBute, the former Brigham Young University grad student, brought to "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors." This new film, like those earlier ones, is a precise little jewel box of misanthropy -- of men and women fighting a battle of the sexes with no winners, only casualties.
Evelyn and Adam start dating, and it's not long before Adam's best friend, Philip (Frederick Weller), and Philip's down-to-earth fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), notice some changes. Adam loses weight, dumps his glasses for contacts, tosses off his ratty old corduroy jacket and even gets a nose job. Is Adam trying to improve himself for Evelyn? Or is she trying to turn him into the perfect boyfriend?
"I hope when I see you, I recognize who the hell you are," Philip tells Adam. The next time the two men are in the same room, all becomes shatteringly clear -- to them and us.
LaBute wrote "The Shape of Things" as a play, with these same four actors in the London and New York productions, and the movie maintains the austerity of a stage work. LaBute favors long fluid takes of the leads, usually two at a time but occasionally all four at once, talking about art and sex and love and betrayal -- and the head games that LaBute characters often play on each other.
Amid the spare sets and the scathing Elvis Costello songs that bookend most scenes, the actors fully inhabit LaBute's world. Weller and Mol capture the befuddlement and anger Philip and Jenny feel watching their friend's metamorphosis. Rudd (aided by some weight-adding prosthetics in the early scenes) shows Adam's eagerness to please Evelyn, and the resentment when his friends believe he's being played.
But Weisz -- who is also one of the film's producers -- is the dark, dynamic center of "The Shape of Things," mixing strains of the rebel, the temptress and the obsessed intellectual. Weisz seems most at home in LaBute's world of verbal knife-fighting, because she is the one most likely to come out of it alive.
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Comparisons between "The Shape of Things" and "In the Company of Men" aren't completely unwarranted.
Writer-director Neil LaBute's latest film explores sexual politics and sexual power in a way that is reminiscent of his lacerating 1997 debut film. Except that "The Shape of Things" has a slight feminist twist.
There's also evidence here of a more maturing artist, one who's learning what filmmaking actually entails. Here, LaBute has opened up the source material, which was his own rather emotionally brutal stage play of the same title.
"The Shape of Things" follows a rather nerdy security guard named Adam (Paul Rudd), who seems to have found the girl of his dreams in the person of art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). He first encounters Evelyn in the art museum where he works -- and where she's about to deface a famous statue. But that's not the end of her "projects" -- she recognizes in Adam something that also needs a little work.
With her encouragement, Adam gets in shape, buys a new wardrobe and cops a new attitude. About the only thing he shares in common with the "old" Adam is his friendship with Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller).
But to Adam's surprise, the two are horrified at some of the changes they see in him. Soon, his choice becomes clear -- choose his friends and lose Evelyn, or choose Evelyn and lose his past.
Not to give too much of the movie away, but there's a real sucker-punch of an ending -- one that seems obvious only after it happens.
At times Rudd overdoes the whole nebbish thing. But as his character loses weight, gets cosmetic surgery (thanks to subtle makeup appliances) and becomes more self-assured, we believe the transformation.
Same for Weisz, who is perfectly enigmatic as Evelyn, a quality that's necessary to make the character and situations convincing.
As director, LaBute keeps the tone surprisingly light -- for a LaBute film, anyway. And he makes good use of several Elvis Costello songs on the soundtrack.
"The Shape of Things" is rated R for crude sexual talk and occasional use of strong sex-related profanity, simulated sex and sexual acts, brief drug use (marijuana), brief violence (a scuffle) and glimpses of nude artwork. Running time: 97 minutes.
Neil LaBute's first two films, "In the Company of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends & Neighbors" (1998), focused on selfish, cruel characters capable of committing unspeakable acts of social inhumanity. After sidetracking with "Nurse Betty" (2000) and "Possession" (2003), LaBute the misanthrop is back to form with "The Shape of Things." Here, as in his earlier work, we have a lesson in human cruelty.
The loose cannon is Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an art major at California's fictional Mercy College (the name of the school is no doubt ironic). When we meet her, she is about to deface a nude statue that has been covered up due to prudishness; with a can of spray paint, she intends to re-draw what a plaster fig-leaf has obscured. The censorship offends her, though her de-censoring will offend others.
Making weak attempts to stop her is the museum's security guard, Adam (Paul Rudd), a nerdy, slightly chubby weakling. They have a conversation, which leads to a date, which leads to Evelyn taking over Adam's life entirely. She prompts him to lose weight (Rudd wore makeup and a fat suit in the early scenes), get contact lenses and stop biting his nails. Then the changes become more drastic, affecting his long-time friendship with a sweet girl named Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and her macho fiance Phillip (Fred Weller). In the Bible, Eve was created from Adam. Here, Eve does the creating and Adam is the finished product.
LaBute is a writer first and a director second. What he does visually is unobtrusive and functional, but what he does with words and structure is wonderful. The word "thing," with its many imprecise definitions, shows up often, and the title of the film is spoken twice, both times by the same character, but each time with a different meaning. The dialogue brims with cultural references and personal invective, much of which is caustically funny.
Two things about the film strike me as particularly interesting. One is that it only has 11 scenes, in 11 locations, compared with the 50 or 60 that most movies its length might have. This is because LaBute has adapted the script from his own play without really changing it, resisting the temptation some writers have to "expand" their plays into something more cinematic and less theatrical.
The other interesting thing is that it only has four speaking roles. It hadn't occurred to me that the cast was so small until the credits rolled and I only saw four names. It doesn't seem quiet and claustrophobic, like many small-cast films do.
The performances are well-honed and precise -- all four actors played the roles in the stage version, too -- but LaBute's intriguing concepts are also the source of his stumbling. The nature of what he has written is that we are less interested in the characters themselves than in what they might do to each other. The mechanism is the thing, not the people caught in it, and that lessens some of the film's impact. Or, from another point of view, it makes us as uncaring toward the characters as they sometimes are toward each other.
** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
If you thought Neil LaBute's first film, "In the Company of Men," was brutal, wait until you get a load of this one.
And frankly if he hadn't done that first movie, "The Shape of Things" would seem much more original. As is, it felt like he was simply trying to "one-up" himself.
Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and Adam (Paul Rudd) have the strangest of first encounters. Adam is a tour guide for a college art gallery. Evelyn is an art student attempting to vandalize a piece of sculpture in that gallery.
She's not being very secretive as she boldly steps inside the ropes to get a closer look and to take pictures of a male nude statue.
She seems to be paying particular attention to a carefully placed fig leaf. Adam asks her to step away from the statue and she politely refuses. She matter-of-factly explains that the original sculpture did not have a fig leaf. It was added later so as not to offend modern-day patrons.
She's incensed by the cover-up and plans a spray-paint protest in response. Adam seems powerless against this aggressive, amazing woman. Yet he musters the courage to ask her out.
So this free-spirited beauty and nerdish wallflower start dating, and slowly, Adam sheds his corduroy jacket and his dark-rimmed glasses, starts working out, gets a new hairstyle, not to mention a suntan -- and all of a sudden, a butterfly emerges.
In the meantime, his old roommate's fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), begins to take notice of Adam's transformation. They both had a secret crush on each other earlier, but neither would do anything about it.
The roommate, Philip (Frederick Weller), finally stepped in, they dated and got engaged, but he's a big jerk -- funny, but still a jerk.
Jenny's beginning to realize she's with the wrong guy. Adam senses something, too, but stays loyal to Evelyn. Evelyn is just so mysterious you don't know what she's thinking, and Philip is still just a brutally honest jerk.
Up to this point, everything is fine. The dialogue is sharp and lively -- just like you'd expect from a Neil LaBute script.
Then it goes into the most unimaginable humiliation ever conceived by man or beast -- I'm thinking more beast -- and I just couldn't stand it anymore.
Why does LaBute have such an intense hatred for the sanctity of a relationship? Or is it that he's just ripping on the phony ones?
"The Shape of Things" left a horrible taste in my mouth. Its ending is just too venomous.
I think LaBute is a first-rate talent -- both in writing and directing -- but he needs to move on to another theme. He's exhausted this one.
"The Shape of Things" started well -- but became grossly misshapen by the end.
Date: 16 May 2003
Source: Salt Lake Tribune
A wall shown in the final scene of Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" features a quote from novelist Han Suyin: "Moralists have no place in an art gallery."
Being a moralist -- albeit a slightly twisted one -- in the director's chair has not been a problem for LaBute, the former Brigham Young University grad student who has created such cautionary tales of corrosive amorality as "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors."
"The Shape of Things," in much the same vein, introduces radical art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) to schlubby student Adam (Paul Rudd), and the two become an unlikely couple. Adam tries to please Evelyn (and, yes, the semi-biblical choice of names is intentional) by making small changes -- losing weight, getting contacts, dumping his old jacket -- and the changes are noticed, with some alarm, by his friends Jenny and Phil (Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller). But where it all leads, in the battlefield of the sexes that is LaBute's frequent stamping ground, is dark and surprising.
"There are those [in the audience] who say they have gotten ahead of it, they have seen through the ruse," LaBute said in a phone interview from New York. "But, for the most part, the audience goes along with the story. . . . They simply watch this kind of off-center campus comedy. They may be wary of it, because they know anything that I've done. . . .
"They go along with Adam, and are hopeful for him. And while Evelyn is certainly an outspoken creature, I don't think she strikes them as particularly malevolent until too late."
"The Shape of Things" began in spring 2001 as a play, produced in London with the same four actors, Weisz, Rudd, Mol and Weller.
"It was written as a play," LaBute said. "It was only really in the rehearsal of it in London that the idea of a film of it came into being. . . . It was in the rehearsal process that we were looking at each other, saying, 'Hey, this is fun. Maybe we should continue this.' "
LaBute -- after making big-budget movies "Nurse Betty" and "Possession" -- liked the idea of making a low-budget movie of the play. The funding materialized after Weisz brought producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (whose Working Title Films was making "About a Boy," in which Weisz co-starred) to see the play in previews.
Weisz got a producer's credit because, as LaBute joked, "she did the classic producerial chore of using somebody else's money."
First, though, LaBute brought the play, with the same cast, to New York. The transition, which LaBute says is always difficult, was made more so by what happened before the New York opening -- the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"After what happened on Sept. 11, people I'm not sure were looking for an evening out that was at all cynical, or skeptical, or anything other than a general sense of camaraderie," LaBute said. "The Shape of Things" had a respectable run, though not big enough to prod LaBute and the producers to keep it going when the initial cast was scheduled to leave.
LaBute broke a few rules of adaptation in bringing "The Shape of Things" to screen. First, there is no effort to "expand" the work for film -- no characters are added, and the scenes retain a stagelike quality.
"I'm not really interested in trying to open this up in a conventional way, in saying, 'Let's try to pull the wool over the audience's eyes in a movie theater and say this didn't exist as a play,' " LaBute said. "We were able to do what we saw fit, which was to take it quite literally from the stage onto the screen. That's why there's 10 scenes and there's just four actors. . . . I'm not going to write in parts for a waiter who just has one line."
Lifting the entire stage cast into a film version is difficult -- mostly because of the logistics of getting four actors to schedule the same shooting window -- but, LaBute said, "I couldn't imagine taking one of them out to replace; even if I wanted to work with Aaron Eckhart [again], I couldn't imagine taking Fred Weller out." (Eckhart, the BYU grad and star of "The Core," has starred in LaBute's four other films -- but here settles for a Hitchcockian cameo on the cover of an Italian Vogue Evelyn reads in one scene.)
With "The Shape of Things" in theaters, LaBute is loaded with new projects -- a London production of his new play "The Mercy Seat"; adapting Amanda Filipacchi's offbeat novel Vapor into a screenplay that he may direct; and writing a remake of the 1973 British thriller "The Wicker Man."
What LaBute will not be writing soon will be stories with overtly Mormon characters. After his 1999 trilogy of one-act monologues, "Bash: Latter-day Plays," LaBute -- who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during his days at BYU -- was disfellowshipped by his local ecclesiastical leaders. LaBute is working to restore his status as a participating church member, in part by avoiding writing about LDS characters.
"Beyond that, I'm just trying to be a guy who thinks through everything that comes out of his pen, rather than just letting it flow," LaBute said. His disfellowship "is not a final state. You have to either move forward or backward. I hopefully am moving in a positive direction."
When asked if he considers himself a good Mormon, LaBute said, "I do, but one can always be better. In my case, I could probably be a lot better. I'm a couple rungs down, but I've still got some climbing strength in me."
*** 1/2 [3.5 out of 4]
Imagine a relationship that starts with this scene: A man is working on the museum on his college campus. He sees a woman walk over the ropes to take Polaroids of a sculpture. He asks her to step back, but she refuses. He doesn't know what to do -- each of the four times he's had to ask someone to step back, they've done it. Then she pulls out a can of spray paint, and explains her plan to paint a penis on the plaster fig leaf, which square townsfolk added to the sculpture years after its creation. After some discussion, the shift ends. She tells him he's cute, although she doesn't know about his hair or his glasses. He asks for her number.
Now, guess who's going to be pushed around in this relationship?
So begins Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," a satirical, surprising and unflinching look at the dark side of relationships. LaBute's first film was "The Company of Men," which looked at cruel men stringing along women as part of a bet. Here, the woman is in the more negative light (although, by the end neither character looks particularly good), using her power in the relationship to make the man into the ideal mate.
(Note of local interest: LaBute, now an internationally acclaimed director, started off at the BYU theater program -- it's true, even though most of his films are rated R.)
Rachel Weisz, who co-produced the film, plays Evelyn, who bewitches the aptly named Adam (Paul Rudd). Rudd and Weisz don't try to create a traditional film romance chemistry, and instead rely on limited methods of expression, resulting in conversations like "You're amazing," "You are." This method makes more and more sense as the film progresses and by the end the film generates feelings of dread. This is almost infuriating, but without a doubt genuine.
Evelyn immediately clashes with Adam's friend and former roommate, Philip (Fred Weller), the kind of guy who feels the urge to say something obnoxious because the conversation isn't focused on him. His fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), says that she had a crush on Adam, but he never asked her out, but Philip did the first time he saw her. Evelyn urges Adam to spend less time with them so that she won't have to see them.
These characters aren't necessarily likeable, but they certainly have more feelings and ideas than the average romantic characters who spend their time breaking up for no reason and then getting back together with even less cause. "The Shape of Things" takes a more realistic and disturbing approach.
The film isn't misogynistic, but an examination of the powers that the suggestion of love can have on the human mind. It might make you more confident, yes, but it also might make you do things that you wouldn't want your friends to know that you did.
While the dialogue in many films serves as a reflection of the screenwriter's wit (or lack thereof), LaBute's work here uses the dialogue as representative of the character. The jokes aren't the jokes of laboriously extended brainstorms, but the jokes of people who are making an effort to alter the mood of a conversation or bring attention to themselves. The authenticity might make you a little uneasy at times, but you have to admire it.
Throughout the film, the dialogue reaches out to a variety of subjects, remaining focused on its theme, but willing to expand on it. And the conversations lead to new ideas, instead of simply progressing the plot. In the final scenes, when a character responds sarcastically to a call to be a better person, the response is perfect.
The work was originally a play, and the remnants can be seen in the film's structure, which consists of several expanded vignettes that feature a bit more in-depth conversation than you'd find in the average film. But LaBute also uses his cinematic flair to make the staginess work in the film, and it most of the time it feels like a film, albeit an unconventionally structured one. The scenes are linked with music from various Elvis Costello songs and some clever camera work. The panning around without pulling focus is particularly effective in the closing shot.
The result is a film that has quality both in its filmmaking and its ideas in order to remind us that, as Costello sings over the closing credits, "You can make somebody a pretty little wife, but don't let anybody tell you how to live your life."