May 10, 2003
Neil LaBute is film maverick
By Christian Toto
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
You can call Neil LaBute many things -- misogynistic, for example, or even misanthropic -- but don't call him thin-skinned.
The writer-director took a lot of flak for his film debut, 1997's "In the Company of Men." The film featured two men planning to woo, then dump, a deaf woman to strike a blow for men everywhere.
In a recent phone interview to promote his new film, "The Shape of Things," the filmmaker sounded implausibly mature and reasonable about the criticism.
"I'm not impervious to criticism, but I'm very open to it," says Mr. LaBute, whose latest film is adapted from his 2001 play of the same name. "I get a chance to say what I say; if they wanna say their piece, fine. Go for it."
"Shape" follows the disastrous courtship of two college students (Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd), with a final twist right in keeping with Mr. LaBute's dark world view.
Mr. LaBute doesn't discourage the notion of links between this film and his first two efforts, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors."
"It's a fair assessment," he says. "It's very much of that same kind of world."
Though straightforward, formula love stories might bring him bigger audiences, the director clearly can't be bothered.
"If I'm going to tread in that area, I feel like I'm responsible for having something fresh to say," says Mr. LaBute, whose new film represents a return to form, of sorts, after his less overtly bleak recent features, "Nurse Betty" (2000) and "Possession" (2002).
None of his films has struck gold at the box office, but he operates within the kind of tight budgets and production schedules (he shot "Shape" in 19 days, while "Men" wrapped in just 11) that keep the studio suits at bay. Still, his budgetary discipline isn't enough to offset a stubbornly uncommercial approach: He seems destined to be forever pigeonholed as a "Hollywood outsider."
"I'm happy when I can't describe a plot in one line," he says, a comment that will make movie producers wince. He prefers "twists and turns that I didn't see coming when writing them."
"Shape," he says, is "almost a direct translation" of the stage production, down to the casting of the four original actors. "There's very little opening up," he says. "There's maybe one scene played outdoors instead of indoors."
Cinema purists are sure to turn pale at such a verbatim visual transcription, and the film does lack visual energy.
He chuckles. "If it's up on the screen, it looks like a movie [to me]," he says.
The stage version of "Shape" featured music by the alternative rock group Smashing Pumpkins.
"Their power lay in letting a song play for a while," he says. He didn't have that luxury for the film adaptation, so he turned to a recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for help.
"I needed the antithesis of that -- really tight, snappy, catchy licks. Who better than [Elvis] Costello?" asks Mr. LaBute, who let the singer-songwriter help place song snippets throughout the film. "He writes so authoritatively about relationships."
"Shape" isn't as coherent in its characterizations as the director's previous efforts, but it does boast a wholly original creation in the duplicitous Evelyn (Miss Weisz). Mr. LaBute hopes audiences will find some sympathy for the character, who steers the plot into its downward spiral.
"Many will have no problem hating, or at least pitying, her," he says. "I understand her drive to create. She feels she's right about everything.
"She's very human to me, and she's interesting," he adds. A revealing afterthought, that. One senses no other word drives him as much as that adjective.
The 40-year-old director brings what some might regard as an unlikely personal background to his work: The emotional scab-picker is a Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University. Call me unimaginative, but when his characters bare their fangs, I don't immediately think, "Osmonds."
More surprising still, the Detroit native converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while a student. He returned to Brigham Young in 1993 to stage "In the Company of Men," which he later adapted for the screen along with his college friend, actor Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich," "The Core").
Shot for about $25,000, "Men" earned the Sundance Film Festival's Filmmaker's Trophy as best dramatic feature. A tale of callously manipulative seduction, it shocked sensitive moviegoers while marking the young director as a talent to watch.
Had Mr. LaBute's creative forays met stiffer resistance, he might have turned to psychology for his livelihood.
"People working in theater or film ... are trying to get believable relationships," says Mr. LaBute, who worked in a state mental hospital during his student days. "I'm interested in the way people are made up."
Directing from his own plays and scripts allows him to keep greater control of the material, and he plans to keep writing for both mediums. Just don't ask him for which medium his next written project is intended.
"When I start writing, often I'm not thinking if it's a film or not. Somewhere along the line, I think, 'It's in the same room all the time; it must be a play,' " he says dryly.
"I enjoy the filmmaking part of it, but I think I'm most comfortable writing," he continues. "It's all about me. It's not egotistical ... you're not taking someone else's time. You decide how you want to use your day."
In directing, it may seem as if everybody and everything except the director -- the union, the weather, the cast -- decides how he will use his day. "There's pressure with losing the light [on shooting day]," he says. "Or, this person has to be out by next Wednesday [for another gig]."
"With writing," he says, "you meander your way to the finish.
By Annlee Ellingson
Starring Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller. Directed and written by Neil LaBute. Produced by Neil LaBute, Gail Mutrux, Philip Steuer and Rachel Weisz. A Focus release. Drama. Rated R for language and some sexuality. Running time: 97 min.
After the diversions "Nurse Betty" and "Possession," writer/director Neil LaBute revisits the unsettling cynicism of his first two battle-of-the-sexes outings, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors." In "The Shape of Things," an adaptation of LaBute's stage play, Rachel Weisz, who also produces, stars as Evelyn, an art student who, in the opening scene of the film, is determined to correct what she deems "false art"--i.e., a strategically placed fig leaf on a sculpture--with a can of spray paint. Adam (Paul Rudd)--the name surely a calculated choice--is the security guard on duty at the time but he's no match for her spirited indifference to authority. Predictably, he asks her out.
What follows is a sweet but, at its core, authentic courtship peppered with cultural references that, realistically, sometimes have to be explained and insecurities that have to be assuaged. Nerdy Adam--overweight, bespectacled and never without his professor-esque corduroy jacket--has a hard time understanding why smart, sexy, stylish Evelyn likes him, and readily responds to her gentle suggestions to get contacts, stop biting his nails and consider plastic surgery. Rudd's performance is a fearless one--he's not afraid to be goofy or dorky. Meanwhile, the role of Evelyn is a bold one and thus particularly attractive for an actress looking for challenging work. Weisz relishes it, and the audience loves her--then ultimately hates her--for it.
Trouble in the relationship arises when Evelyn meets Adam's old friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), with whom he shares unconsummated feelings, and Phillip (Fred Weller, doing his best Jack Nicholson impression), a conservative with whom feminist Evelyn immediately clashes. In these relationships, too, there is a real sense of genuineness: In an encounter between Adam and Jenny at a park, the otherwise visually unexciting conversation filled in with bits of business such as playing on slides and rocking horses, there is a palpable chemistry between Rudd and Mol. However, it becomes clear that Adam will have to decide between his new life with Evelyn and his previous one.
Unfortunately for Adam, all is not at seems, though, and it has something to do with Evelyn's mysterious master's thesis on which she has been working. The climactic scene, in which all--"the illusion of interest and desire" and "there is only art"--is revealed in a bit prolonged (likely intentionally so) monologue that is squirmingly painful to watch. And yet, because one wants to look away, to turn it off, the development and the execution of it are brilliant because, at the same time, one can't.
Alt. Source: Hollywood Bitchslap
THE EFC REVIEW[s]:
2 reviews, 3 ratings:
**** 1/2 [4.5 stars out of 5]
REVIEW by Chris Parry:
THE EFC REVIEW:
SCREENED AT THE 2003 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL:
Most fans of Neil LaBute totally dig his aggressive digging-into-the-bowels-of-humanity style of writing and directing. He doesn't tie up an ending with a pink ribbon, instead he finishes proceedings with an abrupt, hardcore, realistic and totally adrenaline-satisfying manner. The Company of Men was LaBute's first, a nasty story that didn't pull a punch and made Aaron Eckhart a recognizable name. His follow-up, Your Friends and Neighbors, allowed Jason Patric to blow holes in the silver screen with his disturbing tales of teenage sodomy and a well-places curse word that floored many. Nurse Betty gave Renee Zellweger the first of her many awards and allowed Chris Rock the chance to scalp a white man. And then there was Possession. The hundred or so people that saw that movie surely yelled 'what the hell' in unison afterwards, but with The Shape of Things, LaBute bluffs the audience completely that what they're looking at is a vanilla-flavored rom-com, when in actual fact the guy is just waiting to pull a big nasty, vicious, ass-kicking ace out of his sleeve.
The Shape of Things is essentially Pygmalion with a whole new twist. Paul Rudd is a geeky lumberjacket-wearing student who sidelines as an art gallery security guard. When he encounters an attractive anarchist artist (Rachel Weisz) who is set to deface a statue with spray paint, the two start a conversation and find they have a little in common. Just a little, but enough for Rudd to ask his new friend out on a date. To his surprise (and ours), she agrees, and next thing you know they're dating. Rudd's friends (Fred Weller and Gretchen Mol) can't figure out the attraction, and truth be told he finds it a little bizarre himself -- she's the polar opposite of him socially, intellectually and physically. Not that Weisz's character is going to allow her man to get set in his ways - the longer things go, the more she 'improves' him, changing his clothing, his hair, even talking the guy into a nose job. As Rudd starts to become cooler and cuter, his teenage crush (Mol) starts to become interested in him, despite the fact she's engaged to be married. Will our hero choose his conniving girlfriend over his age-old friends who want their buddy back?
That's not really the point. What the point is I can't tell you. Frankly, you shouldn't want to hear it anyway since The Shape of Things is not at all what it seems and most certainly viewed best without any advance knowledge. The performances are awesome -- Rudd is flawless, Weisz likewise, and even Gretchen Mol, who is usually so wooden she'll give you splinters if you shake her hand, doesn't disappoint as the precious preppie that falls for the new Rudd.
But the real star here is LaBute. He twists the audience in such a way that will only become obvious to you when the film is over, and when it is over, you quite honestly won't be able to stop talking about what just happened. This movie is a mind-f*** of the highest order, but it's not until it's over that you even know it. In fact, this film is a great lesson in why it's dumb to walk out of a movie - sometimes the sting is in the tail of the tale.
WORTH A LOOK [4 out of 5]
REVIEW by Mr. Tinkles:
(SCREENED AT THE 2003 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL)
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.
AWESOME [5 out of 5]
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.
Worth A Look MrTinkles - 01/29/03 08:32:15
Killer Movie Reviews
By: Andrea Chase
SHAPE OF THINGS, THE , USA , 2003, MPAA Rating : R for language and some sexuality
Neil LaBute starts his latest film, THE SHAPE OF THINGS, off with a sly dig at what the story is going to be about. His stars are not given character names in the credits, they're listed as "actress" or "actor" in much the same way that credits traditionally list "director" or "writer", both of which LaBute is here. This is artifice, and mannered at that, make no mistake. He then gives us a conversation between Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz that obliquely tells us everything we need to know about what will unfold.
Weisz is a comely bohemian of a graduate art student. Rudd is a yutz of an undergrad earning some extra bucks as a museum security guard. Their paths cross when Weisz crosses a line in front of a Renaissance statue and prepares to deface it with some spray paint. Well, not the whole statue, just the strategically placed plaster fig leaf that was added later to satisfy some conservative art lovers. The leaf, Weisz calmly explains as she shakes the can in preparation for the deed, is not part of statue. It's artifice, hence intrinsically offensive, and badly placed at that. You can still see the shape of his thing. A tidy little play on the title of the film, and not the only one.
Rudd, for his part, is far more concerned about not having to fill out the paperwork her protest would cause. He's also more interested in getting a date with her, which he does. And as in all good stories about the yutz and the bohemian, his vistas open up in ways he never expected. With her encouragement, he gets a new hair cut, a new wardrobe, loses a few pounds, and even contemplates a nose job. All this turns him from dowdy to dynamite which ignites a spark with his good friend, Gretchen Mol, for whom he once had a secret hankering but who is, unfortunately, engaged to his very best friend in the world (Fred Weller). Rudd's blossoming somehow infuriates that best friend, a not so latent misogynist who rather liked being the duo's hunk, not to mention nailing Rudd's secret crush.
Weisz is sharp and cool as the artist, whether bucking up her guy's ego or expanding his horizons sartorially or sexually. Weisz herself flickers with intelligence the way a lightning rod does. Rudd makes a convincing change to cutie-pie while still carrying around the soul of his yutz past, not to mention his very tender heart on his newly stylish sleeve. Mol exudes the sort of wholesome sensuality of a milk maid. She's a real looker with the self-esteem of a door mat, the which have made her easy pickings for Rudd's pal, a not quite latent misogynist with a big mouth, bigger ego and his own esteem issues. Weller brings the right amount of self-righteous sleaze the part, making him not so much a caricature as a symptom of a self-indulgent, self-absorbed society that can't see beyond its designer sunglasses.
LaBute uses these four characters to dissect human interaction in ways that are cathartic and chilling. His is a milieu red in tooth and claw, where even the clever can be left with a few scars, and where the innocent are just so much fodder for the buzz saw of Darwinism.
By the end the definitions of art, artifice, truth and violation are up for grabs, not to mention love, friendship and good intentions. How much of real or reel life can BE real and how much must of necessity be subjective? And how should we feel about this (yet another subjective trap, or is it?). The only direct answer LaBute gives is to have one of his characters look directly into the camera and say that the only offensive reaction to art (read film) is indifference and then flip us the bird with both fingers. It might also apply to Labute's attitude towards the critical reaction he's received for his auteur films, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS. People either loved or hated them and that depth of polarized passion seems to please LaBute no end. As far as he's concerned, he's doing something right and I couldn't agree more.
***** [4 out of 5]
ReelTalk Movie Reviews
In Bad Shape
by Betty Jo Tucker
Depiction of psychological cruelty on screen reaches a new low in The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's mean-spirited comedy about love and art. While admiring this filmmaker's edgy touch in Nurse Betty and in In the Company of Men, I found his latest effort unconvincing and dull -- two adjectives I never expected to use in connection with any movie from LaBute, who usually lives up to his reputation as "film's shock jock." With the exception of Possession, his previous movies ignore what's politically correct in order to explore gender relations with depth and uncompromising honesty.
Consider In the Company of Men. It follows the adventures of two misogynist business executives who try to humiliate a deaf secretary. Definitely not a "feel good movie," but watching the evil Chad (as played by Aaron Eckhart, he's at the top of my "scariest film villains" list) serves as a dramatic lesson for men about how NOT to treat women. The characters and situations seem real, so viewers can relate to this flick no matter how tense it gets.
In The Shape of Things, LaBute veers away from reality to create a fantasy-like story involving an art student (Rachel Weisz) and the nondescript young man (Paul Rudd) she tries to change into a handsome hunk (think Pygmalion in reverse). Yes, LaBute used fantasy before (in Nurse Betty) but the main character in that film is going through a schizophrenic experience. With The Shape of Things, LaBute includes an impossible plot gimmick (one I can't reveal without spoiling the movie for you) -- and expects viewers to buy it.
Nevertheless, I have no complaints about the cast. Both Rudd (The Object of My Affection) and Weisz (The Mummy) deliver excellent performances in extremely "talky" roles. They've had lots of time to learn their parts, having appeared in LaBute's play upon which his movie is based. Rudd's character (whose boyish charm appealed to me even at the beginning of the film) changes slowly scene by scene. He loses weight, gets a different haircut, and even indulges in minor plastic surgery. The film's best sequence shows Rudd being pleasantly surprised at the attention he finally receives from his friend's fiancee (Gretchen Mol of The 13th Floor), a young woman he once had feelings for. Weisz infuses the fanatic artist she plays with a weird combination of arrogance, rebellion, and mystery. Still, as competent as she is, I couldn't believe her ridiculous closing speech about art and morality.
The Shape of Things comes across more like a filmed play than a movie. LaBute admits he refused to "open it up" much for the screen version. Perhaps he made the right decision. Why waste time embellishing an artificial tale such as this one?
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R' for language and some sexuality.)
By: Nicholas Schager
* 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4]
After a brief foray into romantic waters with last year's Possession, writer/director Neil LaBute returns to more familiar misanthropic territory with The Shape of Things, a one-trick pony based on his 2001 play and featuring the stage production's original cast. The film, a cross between LaBute's In the Company of Men and Pygmalion (except with the gender roles reversed), the film is ostensibly a stinging examination of how providing love and support in a relationship frequently encourages only selfishness and cruelty. However, not unlike Todd Solondz's Storytelling, this preposterous relationship drama is also LaBute's staunch defense of his own work; the director's latest argues that art must sometimes be coldly impersonal and even venomous in order to teach us supposed "truths" about ourselves. Nerdish college student Adam (Paul Rudd) falls in love with free-spirited artist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), who begins to transform him--through haircuts, new wardrobes, and even a nose job--into a respectable, cool, and confident young man. Adam's friend Phillip (Fred Weller) and Phillip's fiance Jenny (Gretchen Mol)--a beauty who Adam always wished he had asked out--are taken aback by Adam's radically new personality, and soon Adam begins to buy into the compliments he's receiving, acting in ways that Evelyn will eventually dub "questionable." As it turns out, everything about Evelyn reeks of narcissistic hypocrisy, but because she's the only one who accepts LaBute's trite theory that "Moralists have no place in an art gallery"--a quote seen written on a wall at Evelyn's graduate thesis art project--she becomes the film's hero. While such a statement may, in theory, be true, the lengths to which LaBute goes to prove its veracity feel like an obvious attempt to rebuke his critics. Immature and simplistic, The Shape of Things preemptively negates any challenges to its pessimistic worldview as fundamentally unimportant, since the film champions the idea that the nature of art itself--good or bad, mean or kind, manipulative or suggestive--is that it is beyond reproach. In the pedantic hands of the controversial LaBute, however, such a theme sounds like self-congratulatory justification for his cynical, shallow morality plays, of which this film is merely the latest.
By: Steve Rhodes
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 2003 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****): ***
THE SHAPE OF THINGS is a comedy of modern manners and more. By highly acclaimed writer and director Neil LaBute (IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, among other films), the picture is best summarized by Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), who remarks, "We're just talking." They may, indeed, just be conversing, but their repartee is sharp and clever. And, given the source, we keep expecting LaBute to lead us down some dark alley of the human psyche. Whether he will or not, I'm not saying.
Some films rely on a big ending shock to make the story work. THE SHAPE OF THINGS, on the other hand, delights in small ways as we watch the relationship among two college couples evolve and change.
When we meet Evelyn, an outgoing and attractive art student, she's at a museum to deface an already defaced sculpture. Since the community has seen fit to put a plaster fig leaf on a large, ancient statue, she plans on spray-painting the leaf in protest. While there, she meets her opposite, a shy and dorky guard named Adam (Paul Rudd). He pleads with her to make her statement after his shift ends, as he doesn't have the time to fill out the paperwork.
Since Evelyn and Adam are both students -- he says he's "majoring in filling out student loan applications" -- they begin to flirt. Well, she flirts, and he happily receives her affection. In no time at all, they are seeing each other. A guy who shuns all PDAs (Public Displays of Affection), he can't believe that she would keep coming on to him. "Why would you like me?" he asks her, truly wanting to know. "I'm not anything."
The other couple, in this strictly four-person drama, is Phillip (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol). Phillip used to be Adam's roommate, and Jenny once had a crush on Adam. They are about to be married and are busy choosing the napkins and other paraphernalia for their wedding, which is to be performed underwater, or so claims Phillip.
The rest of the story is about the changes in Adam, as Evelyn remakes him into quite an attractive guy, and in the relationship among the four of them.
Sit back and soak up the delicious dialog as LaBute entrances us once again. THE SHAPE OF THINGS may have a relaxed pacing, but it never ceases to hold our attention.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS runs 1:36. It is rated R for "language and some sexuality" and would be acceptable for teenagers.
The film opens nationwide in the United States on Friday, May 9, 2003. In the Silicon Valley, it will be showing at the Camera Cinemas.
4.5 stars out of 5
A film review by Christopher Null - Copyright © 2003 filmcritic.com
Neil LaBute, you're a cruel, cruel man.
After the somewhat senseless Your Friends and Neighbors and the bafflingly bad period piece Possession, LaBute has at last returned to his roots with the kind of story that made In the Company of Men such a kick in the nuts.
Not that it seems that way from the start. At first it looks like LaBute is taking us down the usual boy-meets-girl road, when a pudgy Adam (Paul Rudd) encounters Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) in a museum. LaBute quickly starts with the nuance: She's preparing to deface a statue in a museum because she believes it's "false art." More to the point: She's getting ready to spray-paint a dick on the thing because of her concern over old world censorship, which forced the artist to fashion a fig leaf to cover the phallus.
Soon they're a happy, if unlikely, couple: Evelyn's an arty uber-feminist, Adam's an awkward and unsure English major. We're introduced to another mismatched pair, old friends of Adam: Perky blonde Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and uber-a**hole Philip (Frederick Weller), who are soon to be married in what Philip wants to be an underwater ceremony. It soon becomes clear that Adam and Jenny have lingering feelings for one another, though Adam continues to profess his undying love for Evelyn.
Before you stop reading and dismiss this film entirely, rest assured this isn't some bad Sandra Bullock movie. Something wicked is afoot in the relationship between Adam and Eve that goes beyond that fig leaf (yes, the Genesis metaphor is wholly apropos here). Evelyn is gently encouraging changes in Adam -- some good (lose a little weight, cut your hair), some less so (get a nose job). By the time we get to the gut-punch of a finale, Adam will be a changed man. Trying not to give away too much, I'll say that The Shape of Things is vicious but also very humorous. It's a bitingly dark and a lot of fun, even if you aren't looking for depth this weekend.
But depth it has, without being pretentious. By its finale, Shape presents a real moral predicament. Adam is being manipulated, but if it's (mostly) for the better, is that so wrong? This happens all the time in relationships, and no one ever minds. Evelyn's motivations should be beside the point, right? On the surface, the film's answer is obvious, but this is the kind of movie that makes you wrestle with the puzzle as you reveal another layer of psychoses underneath.
LaBute stages Shape much like the play it is based on (written by LaBute as well), often with only two of the principal actors in a given scene. The dialogue is very "play-like" as well, slightly unreal and meticulously deadpan. And so LaBute invites us to ask whether The Shape of Things is performance art -- something beyond a mere movie -- and that answer is an unqualified yes.
My only real beef with Shape is Weisz, who I adore as an actress but who tragically sheds her British accent for a nasal and badly forced American squeak. I'm not that impressed to believe that the off-key voice is meant to be part of the show. Imagine how much more menacing she would have sounded with her wicked, true accent.
Weisz has too much screen time to put it completely aside, but in the end it's not hard to let it go. The Shape of Things is a film about insecurity, appearances, and the perils of modern relationships. It's vicious and disturbing without resorting to shock tactics like Requiem for a Dream. It's clever and mean satire, but it's also one of those stories where you say, "Hey, that could happen."
Neil, you're a cruel, cruel man. I knew you had it in you
By: Dennis Harvey
"This adaptation of LaBute's 2001 play provides a queasy investigation of male-female relations that ends with a satisfying shudder of recognition at the extreme cruelty possible within human relationships, particularly those conceived by Neil LaBute."
The Shape of Things
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol, Fred Weller
SUNDANCE REVIEW (which means I'm doing a lot of reviews in a hurry, so they might be shorter and less fantastical):
This is the first Neil LaBute film I've seen, although I'm aware that "In The Company of Men" featured two f***ing a**hole guys utterly devastating a woman for the fun of it. This new film seems to be the counterpoint to that - a woman utterly devastating a man for the art of it.
It's a simple story. Boy (Rudd) meets Girl (Weisz). Boy is a socially-inept, slightly puffy, museum-guard loser, Girl is hot babe with adamant beliefs about art. Boy dates Girl, and in the process falls in love with Girl, gets in shape, learns how to dress properly and does something with his hair, even gets some rhinoplasty, becomes cute. Boy then attracts Engaged Friend and Ex-Love Interest (Mol) and the two of them do a little extracurricular unbeknownst to Girl and Engaged Friend's Fiancee/Boy's Friend (Weller). Boy feels guilty, devotes self to Girl at all costs. Then Girl pulls whopper out and reveals her entire relationship with Boy was just her art project thesis, making a human sculpture out of Boy and showing that when outward appearaces change for the commonly-accepted 'better' the internal scruples change for the worse - case in point, being all cheaty.
In case you weren't warned by the fact that the word 'SPOILERS' is in the name of the site, I'll warn you a tad too late that I've just blown the surprise-ish ending, but it's not a really huge shocker. It's just the extent to which this is all a project to Girl that we weren't really sure of.
I was sorta in love with Rachel Weisz after "Confidence," but after seeing this... my god. Any insecure schmuck like me, who has been in relationships where you watch the beautiful person you're with and wonder WHAT in the BLUE HELL she sees in you, is likely to feel some serious angst and woe while watching Paul Rudd get utterly humiliated... and it's an exceptional knife-twist when the implication is that he might actually consider trying to go back to the bitch after he's been emotionally raped.
Rudd does a pretty good job with his own role, the insecure guy enjoying his relationship so much that he's tossing his free will to the wind. He has some weird nervous tics in here that he uses to smooth over awkward points in conversations that seemed to ring pretty true conceptually, although they'd probably work better on stage, which is part of the film's problem.
The movie was so blatantly adapted from a play that it was distracting, and it left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, but there's enough interesting stuff going on here to make it worth checking out. It DOES make you think.
The Shape of Things
Jan. 22, 2003
By Duane Byrge
Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- The philistines take on the artistes in Neil LaBute's latest batch of vitriol.
Distilled from his own stage play and resembling a student film shot during spring break when everyone is away, "The Shape of Things" is one square talking-head piece after another. Intermittently brainy, it should find some minor interest among sophomoric undergrads and get a passing grade on the fest circuit, where ditties take on magnitude through the mere fact of the festival factor -- like at Sundance, where viewers swoon at tripe because they are swayed by the setting and circumstance.
Clunking from one talk scene to another, "Shape" most resembles a late-night college dorm treatise on art vs. morality. In this compact case, four collegians square off: There's Adam (Paul Rudd), an amorphic mope, and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a strident graduate art student. Stop to think: Get it? Adam and Eve. Such is the sublime subtlety of LaBute's dramaturgy.
There's also Philip (Frederick Weller), er, the philistine, and, by jiminy, Jenny (Gretchen Mol). She's the cute seductress, and "Jeze-bel" might be a bit too arcane for today's collegiate moniker. Lo, following right along in your Gideon Bible or handy-dandy museum guide, whichever you favor, there's more: Adam listens to Eve, and verily, woe and pestilence do smite him in the end.
In this nonmoving movie, LaBute has cobbled together a slew of similar setups in which opposing viewpoints duel it out. In general, it's pretty uninteresting, so let's cut to the most cutthroat: Philistine Philip vs. Poseur Eve. Philip is LaBute's prototypical angry, macho man. He detests Evelyn, who is an in-your-face artsy-fartsy type. Evelyn is deep in creativity with her project "thingy." They duel it out: What is art? What is pretentious b.s.? It gets nasty, which is the operative word for LaBute's aesthetic. Discussion turns to anger, and people huff off after nearly every scene in a major snit. Then comes the wound licking as our four representative characters interact and take sides. Unfortunately, it's all pretty arithmetical and obvious, even with the sexual equation factored in.
LaBute packs an intriguingly twisted wallop at the end, but it's merely made of the stuff that would be a subplot in a more mature movie. Credit to the cast members, though, for generally hitting on the head their particular parts. Unfortunately, LaBute hammers this "Shape" to smithereens with argument after argument. Characters don't so much interact but rather act out, and ultimately, the anger that fuels each scene doesn't add up to what one might call drama.
The best thing about "Shape" is the music: Elvis Costello belts out a slew of songs that give this sophomoric "thingy" its most compelling form.
A review of "The Shape of Things" by Jeanne Aufmuth
Stars: *** [3 out of 4]
Rating: R for language and nudity
Run Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Neil LaBute loves to stir up controversy. He came out of the box with a bang with the misogynistic "In the Company of Men" (1997) and never looked back, moving on to such divisive fare as "Your Friends and Neighbors" and the darkly nuanced "Nurse Betty". Fortunately, "Shape" has LaBute's fingerprints all over its nasty little narrative.
A geeky museum guard cum undergraduate English major (Paul Rudd as Adam) meets a feminist art student (Rachel Weisz as Evelyn) hovering near a graphically imposing statue at a university gallery, poised to deface the priceless sculpture (in the name of her art) with a can of red spray paint. Though Adam's head tells him to stop her, his heart steers him in a different direction... to drum up the nerve to ask for her phone number.
That first date signals a monumental rite of passage for the unassuming Adam. With Evelyn's subtle guidance, he loses weight, changes his hair, and even goes under the knife for the thrill of it. Seems innocent enough on the surface, but Evelyn's benign guardianship screams hidden agenda --- involving Adam's work, his friends, and the prickly evolution of emotion.
"Shape" has a lot to say about love, lust and duplicity. Its catch phrase, "Is seduction an art?" neatly captures La Bute's fondness for dissecting sexual manipulation, not to mention his uncommon zeal for the unsightly underbelly of courtly romance.
Based on LaBute's own stage play of the same name, "Shape" occasionally veers into artificial sermonizing that fosters separation between viewer and character. But excellent performances by Weisz (whose simple conceits are infuriating) and Rudd (whose needy squeaky-cleanness is unexpectedly endearing) capture a colluded mood, and the fallout from the discomfiting climax lingers long after the lights have come up.
The Art of War
by J. Hoberman
May 7 - 13, 2003
The Shape of Things
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Opens May 9, at Loews Lincoln Square and Loews Village
Are you tough enough to take the naked truths that Neil LaBute dishes out? Having tried his hand at feel-good comedy and posh literary adaptation with Nurse Betty and Possession, the prolific LaBute returns to the he-man emotional cruelty of his first two movies and recent theater work. The Shape of Things -- directed by LaBute from his 2001 play, with the same four actors re-creating their roles -- may be considered a distaff version of In the Company of Men. It's a calculated bit of sexual bait-and-switch in which predatory humans toy with each other to achieve their own carnivorous ends.
Boldly schematic, The Shape of Things opens in a college art museum with Adam (Paul Rudd) and Eve . . . lyn (Rachel Weisz) meeting in the shadow of a classically sculpted male divinity. He's working as a guard; she's an aesthetic terrorist who has hopped the barrier protecting the marble artwork in order to spray-paint a penis on its fig leaf. "I hate art that isn't true," she tells him. It may not be the Garden of Eden, but dorky undergrad Adam is fascinated by this wily, self-assured M.F.A. student; tempted by the promise of her phone number, he looks the other way.
Perhaps inspired by the British bad-girl installation artist Tracy Emin, Evelyn -- so we soon discover -- keeps a video camera trained on her bed, creates her own mini Warhol films, and speaks approvingly of a performance piece that involved the artist finger-painting with her own menstrual blood. (So why wasn't this disruptive vixen called "Lilith"?) Evelyn is a cartoon menace who not only braids her hair in two charming little horns but also accessorizes her Che Guevara T-shirts with Mao buttons. Affecting a buzz-saw purr and squinchy smile, Weisz is nothing if not mannered, but then her part is all about acting.
Adam may be hopelessly devoted to the irritating Evelyn, but he's not so blind that he doesn't wonder what exactly she sees in him. "Why would you like me? I'm not anything," he wails, much to her annoyance. Actually, Evelyn does make a few helpful sartorial suggestions, encourage a weight-loss regimen, treat her aw-shucks young protege to a new haircut, and, somewhat incredibly, persuade him to undertake a bit of cosmetic surgery. When asked about the bandage affixed to his nose, Adam coyly attributes it to a tumble down some stairs. And, as The New England Primer opens, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all."
Fortunately for the viewer, Evelyn and Adam are not entirely alone in the world of Mercy College; Adam has two friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phil (Frederick Weller), graduating seniors who when first encountered are planning to stage their wedding underwater. They make for an amusingly awkward foursome, and, on-screen as onstage, glamour gal Mol unexpectedly gives the quartet's strongest performance -- prissy and sweet, masking her uncertainty with a tight, demure smile. (As Weisz says of her own character in a different context, Mol presents the most convincing "illusion of interest and desire.") The entertaining Weller, broadly playing the film's Aaron Eckhart role, is a self-satisfied male chauvinist who renders his smugness suspect with his sidelong glances, slow-dawning suspicions, and supercilious delivery.
LaBute adds a few stray background noises to the soundtrack but declines to open up his play -- although the golden light and neoclassical edifices of the near empty California campus where the exteriors were shot accentuate the allegory. In its costumes, line readings, and structure, the movie faithfully preserves the stage production -- a provocative, if meretricious, evening of theater that ends in a paroxysm of LaButality with a bear swipe to the spectator's head. It is, however, more difficult to rattle a movie audience -- at least with words -- and, despite its streamlined presentation, The Shape of Things is not nearly as effective on-screen. Where the play ended with a form of direct address, the movie reaches its climax in a Mercy College auditorium (complete with stained-glass windows). Lurking in the background is a perhaps invented aphorism attributed to the author of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." Expelled from Paradise at last.
Although much has been made of his conversion to Mormonism, LaBute seems more fundamentally a Puritan -- and not simply in his taste for jeremiad and punitive disdain for sexual pleasure. The Shape of Things is itself shaped by a profound mistrust of art -- or rather, a hatred of artifice. But who's kidding whom? This scenario's emphasis on objectification and mind control, its exaggerated horror of duplicity and role-playing, do not convincingly critique art-world solipsism. As Evelyn's agenda folds into LaBute's, The Shape of Things suggests a more personal issue -- a self-devouring contempt for theater itself.
An antidote to (or, perhaps, a necessary appetizer for) LaBute's neo-Cromwellian moralizing may be found this week at Film Forum, which has chosen to revive the most cloying of cult films, Philippe de Broca's 1967 King of Hearts... [Review of King of Hearts follows]
West May 07, 2003
By Scott Proudfit
Like Spike Lee's Tawana Brawley moment in Do the Right Thing, there's a scene in Neil LaBute's latest feature, The Shape of Things, in which the filmmaker shamelessly puts the writing on the wall. As the manipulative artist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is confronted by her cosmetic creation, schlub-made-stud Adam (Paul Rudd), we can't help but read the proclamation emblazoned on the wall behind her, white letters painted on a red wall: "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." How LaBute and his characters accept or refute this statement is the crux of his latest film.
Like Lee, LaBute has never been afraid to spell things out for his audiences. Of course Lee's best work was directed at inspiring social change, whereas LaBute's, at best, inspires healthy self-examination and, at worst, laughter followed by despair. This may be because--filtered through the paradigms of theatre legends--Lee is sort of a poor man's Brecht, LaBute a post-modern Shaw. Brecht best depicted the tragic struggle of the downtrodden, Shaw the comic pettiness of aristocracy. Both agreed, however, on the general wickedness of society.
It's no coincidence, then, that The Shape of Things (to be released on May 9) is modeled on Pygmalion--with its gender roles reversed, of course. LaBute, whose works have also been wisely compared to modern-day Restoration comedies, acknowledged in a recent interview his debt--and his aspiration--to such writers as Shaw.
"[Shaw] was a great writer, but he was also a great social critic," said LaBute. "And sometimes, quite honestly, his prefaces are as interesting as his plays. Likewise, another person I really admire is Wallace Shawn. The appendix, or whatever it is, to Aunt Dan and Lemon they were once performing in Chicago right across the street from the play. That sort of attests to the power of that writing. I admire people who have something to say. It's probably the fear of not having anything to say myself."
True to His Idols
LaBute makes no bones that the best place to stand is on the shoulders of giants. He has a long list of favorite fellow playwrights and directors, past and present, and he has no qualms about sharing his passion with his actors. In preparation for Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute's vicious probing into the politics of sex, he had his cast watched three films with him prior to shooting: Carnal Knowledge, Manhattan (which in past interviews he has named as perhaps his favorite film), and Contempt, partly because he "just wanted to see them projected," but also, as LaBute put it, because "I try every day to read something or watch something that is quite honestly better than anything I will ever do. And luckily I'm able to find something almost every day. It's like playing with a better tennis player."
As countless comparisons between their works have indicated, one of LaBute's idols is David Mamet. But while In the Company of Men and certainly Your Friends and Neighbors have certain Mametian features--misogynist men, "f***"-filled dialogue, a certain stylized but naturalistic cadence--LaBute in fact owes more to the British political playwrights of the past 30 years than to this American realist.
LaBute admitted his Anglophile leanings, confessing that his recent The Distance From Here, which focuses on the abusive relationship between two disaffected teenage friends in low-income suburbia, owes much to Edward Bond's Saved. "I admire the way he writes," LaBute said of Bond. "It's very muscular. I think on any given day, in one of those grudge matches, Bond probably would have kicked Mamet's ass--and I think Mamet's is an ass that would be hard to kick. You don't hear me saying I would kick his ass. But Bond, he was a ferocious little fella." And LaBute dedicated his latest play, Mercy Seat, to David Hare.
LaBute's interest in such writers as Bond, Hare, Howard Barker, Howard Brenton, and Caryl Churchill began in his undergrad years at Brigham Young University, continued in his grad years at New York University, and was no doubt fanned by his post-grad scholarship at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It's little surprise then that, like that other American moralist of the contemporary stage, Kenneth Lonergan, LaBute is a writer whose works have been embraced across the pond to an even greater degree than in his native land. Two of LaBute's last three plays, The Shape of Things and The Distance From Here, debuted in England, and Distance, while in negotiations for a New York run, has yet to make it back to the States.
But while LaBute acknowledged his respect and even adoration for his betters, British or otherwise, his voice is undoubtedly unique, even if it was developed through a process of emulation. Said LaBute, "That's true with everybody. You go back and look at those plays you were writing in high school and college, and you go, OK, that's Pinter, that's Fugard. Then you read one--there's that one transition--and there's you. There it is, but you had to go through all your Pinter pauses to get there."
Making God Art
Without making too much of it (which most reviewers already have), one of the things that makes LaBute's voice distinct from his influences is his occasional embedded religious symbolism and his more overt moralist musings, possibly a result of his conversion to Mormonism during his days at BYU. Examples of the former are the not-so-subtle nods in nomenclature in The Shape of Things (Adam and Evelyn) or the more obscure connection between the devil and Jason Patric's character, Cary, in Your Friends and Neighbors (there's a lot in this film about timepieces, broken or otherwise, and Patric, when confronted with the idea an afterlife, says satanic stuff like, "This is my time" and "The interim is mine").
But, a populist artist at heart, LaBute doesn't seem to want his audiences to spend too much time trying to figure out his symbolism. In at least one scene in most of his films, he clearly lays out this central concern. In Your Friends and Neighbors, it's a discussion between Barry (Aaron Eckhart) and Cary about what it is to be "good." In The Shape of Things, Adam confronts Evelyn about being "better," whatever that means.
About these scenes, LaBute said, "Sure, you run the risk of people saying, 'Well, you shouldn't overtly say what you're trying to say.' But we skirt around it so often. Especially when there are guys talking, they could go on forever without saying anything. So at some point somebody has just got to put it on the table and say, 'Hey, what about the big stuff? What's it like to be good? Is art always OK?' Sometimes the obvious has to be stated. And it is interesting to me because it's so subjective--what's good and bad and right and wrong."
While the subject matter may be moral, LaBute never judges his characters, at least on-screen. The idea here may be that the moralist has no place in the director's chair. Said LaBute, "Do I have some moral responsibility? Yeah--to tell interesting stories. I'm not there to judge. The audience can decide whether they like Adam or Evelyn or any of them."
Though his characters' comeuppance may not happen in the film, much to some audience members' chagrin, LaBute believes that actions do have consequences, but that showing those consequences may not make the best art. This relates to the idea that the difference in film between a comedy and a tragedy is when the movie ends. Things are only happily-ever-after if captured at their climax. Let the camera linger a day or two and you've got a different picture of romantic bliss, so to speak.
Perhaps LaBute's most hated character, the smug Chad (Eckhart) in In the Company of Men, who seduces and destroys a deaf woman for sport, is never shown paying for his crimes, something that had a few audiences--and a few feminist groups--up in arms. But while he may not judge someone like Chad on-screen, LaBute doesn't feel he condones his behavior either. It's just that the judgment comes after "cut."
"I can't look at Chad's behavior and think that this can go on for very long," he said. "You just can't sustain that kind of deceit. Nor did he look very happy at the end. We see very few private moments, but there is a moment at the end of the movie where he's with this woman and he's getting a blowjob and he's just kind of staring off into space, like, I don't know who she is really; I don't know who I am. So I don't see him as some great winner taking a victory lap."
Actors He Loves
Perhaps because of his theatre background, LaBute is also known for his careful handling of his actors' needs. The Shape of Things offered what would seem a unique opportunity for the director in terms of rehearsal, because the play was produced in London and New York with the same cast (Rudd, Weisz, Gretchen Mol, and Fred Weller) before the film went into production. This relationship is not so rare for LaBute, however, who recommends writer/directors get an actor involved as a producer, as he has with Your Friends and Neighbors (Patric) and The Shape of Things (Weisz). Both films, as well as his debut In the Company of Men, were thus afforded lengthy rehearsal periods, typically upon the insistence of his actor/producers.
His bigger-budget pictures, Nurse Betty (the only film in which he was not involved in the script) and Possession, haven't allowed the same kind of rehearsal time. Without this luxury, LaBute finds he can get frustrated with the demands put on his performers.
"I've tried to create a good enough atmosphere that actors feel safe pretty quickly and they do good work," he said. "But they've got to get frustrated, because I do. Actors have this absolutely schizophrenic job where they're asked--especially on film more than stage--to create in such a haphazard way. Actors are all Jackson Pollock. They're asked to create right now and then do it 35 more times. Then the shot that goes with it, we'll do on Thursday. And you know the shot when you come into the building? That's actually in October. So can you sustain that feeling?
"It's such an insane way to make a piece of art, and yet that's what we ask from them all the time. And then when they don't do it, you start to see people go, 'Where's the $17 million worth of actor we paid for?' That's about the only time I get frustrated on a movie. Because you're asking [actors] to look idiotic, and asking them to look like it in front of a lot of people. To be free enough to do that, to play the fool, you've got to really give them some space."
With that kind of healthy attitude, it's not hard to see why many actors consider the controversial LaBute a saint. BSW
THE SHAPE OF THINGS (2003)
*1/2 (out of four)
Early in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, a character mistakes "Medea" for "My Fair Lady". Not an easy thing to do, for sure, it's something that points to both LaBute's instinct to proselytize and to his unpleasant air of smug intellectual superiority. LaBute's films are science projects involved in the dissection of sexual politics; at their best, they illustrate the harshest salvos lobbed in the gender war, and at their worst, they serve mainly to confirm that LaBute has become so disdainful of his audience that first Possession and now The Shape of Things most resemble listless beasts over-burdened with broad symbol, churlishness, and portentous allusion. LaBute wants to hit you over the head and get away with something at the same time, his existential rage cooling in direct proportion to the self-pitying belief that no one understands him.
Structured as it is like an undergraduate survey in comparative literature, The Shape of Things is meticulous and meticulously telegraphed. "My Fair Lady" outlines its makeover plot and, more obliquely, the sexual dysfunction implied by the Pygmalion myth (tipping off the film's visual and thematic debt to Vertigo along the way), while "Medea" outlines its sexual jealousy plot and woman scorned. With posters of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and Chekov's "The Seagull" splitting time with the martyr quote from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, LaBute litters The Shape of Things with references to works involved in the sacredness of performance, the artificiality of theatre, and destructions by beloveds. Potentially well and good--if only LaBute didn't punctuate his visual cues with a wordiness that functions as sour footnote to the director's snooty cleverness.
A PA announcement over the film's opening credits, for instance, broadcasts an Alex Katz retrospective, and indeed, the whole of the picture's visual style is a shrine to abstract realist Katz's reductive portraits and primary colours. (The artist's 1963 painting of his wife, "Study of the Red Smile," appears to be the literal model for the concluding scene's set design and blocking.) Perhaps in honour of Katz's sensibility, character changes can be predicted by the colour of the hobbyhorse Adam rides in his playground epiphany (and by the rigid dictates of the film's wardrobe: he in browns and yellows, she in mercurial blue). Meanwhile, complex behavioural rationales are boiled down to Chekov's Treplev's "she loves me not" flower game, emblazoned at the end of the film in a literal neon sign.
The Shape of Things follows awkward Adam (Paul Rudd) meeting cute his rib Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) as she prepares to draw a penis on a censored sculpture, trading his silence for her phone number. As their relationship progresses, Evelyn gradually sculpts Adam into the kind of hunky milquetoast that has become Rudd's stock and trade, much to the dismay of Adam's testosterone-retarded pal Phil (Fred Weller) and Phil's shapeless fiance Jenny (Gretchen Mol). It's an Ayn Rand sort of social fantasy as Evelyn reshapes Adam in an idealized image, the exercise technically interesting but constructed so as to stultify with the rigidity and forced artificiality of its architecture. Consider the example of Evelyn's monogram ("EAT"): a banner statement of her predatory nature, when Adam reveals to Evelyn that he's had it tattooed to his pelvic bone, LaBute hammers the already unsubtle point home with a shot of Evelyn licking it.
The bland hatefulness of Phil and Jenny suggests a potential invitation by LaBute to consider The Shape of Things as a statement about artificiality and pretension rather than something artificial and pretentious. Yet for all the contortions it goes through to make itself satire, at its heart the picture is little more than an apologia for LaBute's reputation as mirthless chronicler of gender distrust. The film's dialogue laboriously defines LaBute's art manifesto as a combination of Han Suyin's "moralists have no place in an art gallery" and his own, less ornate but no less self-important "there is only art." The film's focus on betrayal also reveals itself to be both textual and extra-textual, with LaBute the victim of his critics just as his alter ego Adam is the victim of Evelyn. LaBute is like Todd Solondz (and The Shape of Things is like Storytelling): once filmmakers celebrated for their excoriations of the hypocrisies of social interaction, they now address critics in simpering films with unsubtle monologues and fourth wall-breaking middle fingers. The shock of The Shape of Things is no longer sprung from LaBute's prickly rage, but instead located in LaBute's self-defeating belief that any kind of justification is necessary in the first place.
The Shape of Things is most fascinating as a statement not of the extent to which a woman can behave just like the men of LaBute's In the Company of Men, but as an auto-critical picture that leaves LaBute exposed as exactly Evelyn's breed of emotional bully and intellectual snob. The justification for Evelyn's sociopathic manipulation of Adam as some sort of rail against the indifference of the status quo is rendered curiously impotent by the anti-heroine's insistence on wearing Chairman Mao buttons and Che Guevara T-shirts manufactured in the Warhol pop-art style. Evelyn is an erstwhile Hedda Gabler whose every touch renders something "ludicrous and mean"--and Evelyn is LaBute's mouthpiece. The greatest failure of The Shape of Things is not its literary pretensions and glacial remove; rather, it's in the mad rush to justify its creator in a labyrinth of signs and signifiers, thus pulling back the curtain on him instead.-Walter Chaw
This time it's the woman who manipulates the man in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things
BY LUKE Y. THOMPSON
Neil LaBute is back to his old self, and the cinematic world is a better place for it.
Honestly, what was he thinking when he made Possession? Did the charges of misogyny, still lingering from In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, get to him so much that he felt he had to do a weepy chick flick? Nurse Betty was decent, but the fact that it was a film that came more to life when it focused less on the title character's perspective and more on the apparent antagonist in Morgan Freeman should've been a hint that everyone's favorite in-your-face liberal Mormon doesn't fare so well telling women's stories.
Actually, the problem may be that he isn't so well-suited to telling other people's stories, period, especially when he still has so many of his own to tell. Not that those tales necessarily appeal, but if you've seen any of his self-penned material before, you'll have a good idea as to whether you'll love or loathe his new one, The Shape of Things. As one of the principals says near film's end, "Only indifference is suspect."
It's a bitch to write about this one, though, because LaBute, much like M. Night Shyamalan, relies on surprises and shocks, and even more than before here, with a climax that virtually stabs a knife into your chest, and a coda that twists the bare bodkin even further. Notice the Shakespearean use of "bare bodkin" in that previous sentence? Good, because I'm making a point in none-too-subtle LaBute-like fashion; it's a running gag in The Shape of Things that ostensible protagonist Adam (Paul Rudd) makes classical literary references that his girlfriend Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, who also co-produced) doesn't catch. Compounding the point, LaBute drops some visual references in the background to Medea and Hedda Gabler, just to rub in the notion that women can be psycho, and to prove that he's read about it. You expect this in a film-school project but hope that an auteur on his fifth movie could transcend such dime-store "symbolism."
No need to pick on the man too much, however; it's a fun flick otherwise. The mere idea that the title, at least on the surface, refers to the actual build of male genitalia, should tell you where the film's headed. Adam is an impotent watchman at a college art museum, and he meets Evelyn as she plans to desecrate a statue. Speaking in stagy repartee (which gets better as the film progresses, or at least as the viewer gets used to it), they recognize love, or possibly just lust, at first sight.
Except that she hates his hair. He, being a nerd who seldom gets any action, naturally opts to fix his coif ASAP. But that's just the beginning: Weight loss, diet change, rifts with friends and even a nose job lie ahead, achieved through a gradual process of subtle manipulation by the intensely passionate Evelyn, who convinces Adam that it's all his idea. Most guys change at least a little when they're in a relationship, but LaBute characters tend to be archetypes who take things to the extreme, and they don't disappoint here. (The fact that Star Wars' evil master manipulator Ian "Palpatine" McDiarmid is thanked in the end credits is a nice coincidental touch.)
Also in the picture is Jenny (Gretchen Mol), a girl Adam had long wanted to ask out but never dared to; she ended up going out with his doofus roommate Phil (Frederick Weller, best known for playing Brian Wilson in ABC's The Beach Boys: An American Family), to whom she's now engaged. With LaBute's buddy Aaron Eckhart apparently busy counting the zeroes in his paycheck from The Core, it's up to Weller to fill the designated role of Dumb Sexist Guy, and he does so brilliantly, at one point earnestly delivering the toast, "To balls--long may they wave!" Call him the thinking man's Ashton Kutcher, if such a concept is indeed possible.
LaBute has also returned to his older notions of how to use music in a film, which should please those of us who found the scores in his last two films a tad overdone. Music snippets only serve as scene transitions herein, this time culled from the works of Elvis Costello, mostly omitting the vocals, which is an improvement and also makes the tracks sound eerily similar to the heavy percussion of the In the Company of Men soundtrack. For many hipsters, the union of Costello and LaBute must have been a dream project--too bad Elliott Smith couldn't also be worked in there somewhere.
To touch more on the film's details would be to spoil it; suffice it to say that once again LaBute pushes past the boundaries of acceptable behavior and forces his audience to pass judgment. Those who've dismissed him as amoral miss the point completely. By not cueing you as to what to think about his protagonists, he forces you to decide for yourself, which is a highly moral stance, and ultimately more memorable than spoon-feeding us the answer. The risk, of course, is that some will learn the wrong lesson (an acquaintance of mine came out of In the Company of Men hailing its despicable woman-hater as a new hero, and some women are sure to adore Evelyn), but most will at least be talking afterward, and that's one sign of a memorable movie, whether you liked it or not.
dallasobserver.com | originally published: May 8, 2003
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
Morality tale loses shape at arm's distance
Friday, May 09, 2003
BY STEPHEN WHITTY
"Moralists have no place in an art gallery."
That quote appears painted on a wall in a shot near the end of Neil LaBute's new film, "The Shape of Things."
But its very debatable point is part of every scene.
Because Neil LaBute is a moralist, of a sort. And although he's a modernist, too -- or at least enough of one to shrink from giving us his feelings about his flawed characters -- his movies encourage us to watch his art and make our own moral judgments.
Is this person fair? Is this action forgivable? Would I really have acted any differently under the circumstances?
Based on his recent play -- and even featuring the same cast -- "The Shape of Things" takes place over several months at a small California college. A young man and woman meet; an affair quickly begins. And as it goes on, the young woman deftly "makes over" the young man, manipulating him into changing everything from the shape of his nose to the friends he sees.
Paul Rudd, muffled under a fat suit for the first few scenes, plays the young man; the lightly mocking Rachel Weisz is the young art student with an agenda all her own. They're big, bold parts, quite unlike anything either actor has played before, and both play them for all they're worth.
Yet LaBute, contrarily, keeps us from getting too close to them. Although his other films -- particularly "Your Friends and Neighbors" -- had some fine writing, here the dialogue is deliberately pedestrian. Characters make self-conscious jokes, and other characters answer them with clumsy sarcasm; every line comes complete with arch, invisible quotation marks.
That kind of distracting, nudge-in-the-ribs irony pervades the film. The heartless campus the story is set in is called, of course, "Mercy College"; the main characters are named, I'm afraid, Adam and Evelyn. The self-consciousness is at first annoying and ultimately self-defeating. How can Evelyn's own falsity stand out when everyone sounds like a character in a bad "Friends" script?
That's a shame, because LaBute is one of the few American directors who really wrestles with moral questions in his work; he was raised in the Mormon church and still thinks of life's choices in deeply philosophical terms. In a movie world where no one ever feels guilty and few actions have consequences, that's a welcome trait.
Yet, as in his first film, "In the Company of Men," sometimes LaBute's morality risks lapsing into easy misanthropy.
Paul Rudd's character is, if possible, even more pathetic than the deaf woman in that first film -- pudgy and puppyish, he has everything but the "Kick Me" sign on his back. And then LaBute sticks it on for him -- and, for 90 minutes, proceeds to let everyone have their shot at him, while he stands aside and coldly watches.
Perhaps this sort of distancing worked in the theater, where everything is staged and often a trifle unreal. But on film, the rhythms are off, a small bit of space surrounding each line as if the actors were waiting for the laughs. And the ultimate effect seems a little disappointing and more than a little hollow.
It is no longer enough, five films into his career, for Neil LaBute to inform us that people sometimes treat other people terribly. It is now time for him to start figuring out why.
Shape of Things, The
A Film Review by James Berardinelli
United States, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 5/9/03 (limited)
Running Length: 1:36
MPAA Classification: R (Profanity, sexual situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
If Neil LaBute's views about love and human relationships are represented by what appears in his motion pictures, then to call him a cynic would be an understatement. The Shape of Things returns to the same general terrain as In the Company of Men with a twisted love story about manipulation, the loss of innocence, and the brutality of betrayal. What starts out as a talky, modern-day re-interpretation of Pygmalion (Henry Higgins is explicitly mentioned) turns into something heart-wrenchingly bleak. If this is the potential price of opening oneself up to tender feelings, why would anyone bother?
The Shape of Things skims a lot of issues -- the nature and importance of art, the value that society places upon the superficiality of physical beauty, and the ease with which one who surrenders to love can be emotionally wrecked. The latter is the aspect most likely to preoccupy viewers as they depart the theater. Don't let the surprisingly light and airy beginning fool you -- this film gets very dark before the end credits roll. If you're not prepared to inhale a devastatingly negative view of human nature, this film isn't for you. There is no catharsis worth mentioning.
The story began as a stage play in London, then moved to an off-Broadway theater before making the transformation to the screen. LaBute shepherded The Shape of Things through both of its stage incarnations and in front of the camera. The four actors -- Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, and Frederick Weller -- originated the characters in front of a live audience. If they seem to know the individuals whose skins they inhabit, it shouldn't come as a surprise, since they played them for a year.
Adam (Rudd) is a shy, nerdy college student moonlighting as a museum guard when he first meets Eveyln (Weisz). She's an artist who is about to deface a statue of Zeus as an act of protest. Sparks fly between the two, and they're soon an item. Adam's engaged friends -- quiet Jenny (Mol) and domineering Phillip (Weller) -- are at a loss to understand the attraction, since Adam and Evelyn are complete opposites. Jenny is wary of Evelyn, but for Phillip, it's hate at first sight. Gradually, as he spends more time with Evelyn, Adam begins to change -- he loses weight, turns in his glasses in favor of contacts, gets a haircut, starts wearing hip clothing, and agrees to a nose job. And, in addition to re-shaping his appearance, Evelyn gradually insinuates some of her own ideas and characteristics into Adam's personality. The consequences of this, especially as they involve Jenny and Phillip, are not entirely what Evelyn expects.
To a certain extent, The Shape of Things suffers the hiccups of numerous stage-to-screen adaptations -- there's almost no action, and the torrent of dialogue is often a little pretentious and not always engaging. Some scenes are riveting -- especially the ones that occur in the film's final third -- but there are others that come across as too long or contrived. One key sequence in particular stands out. The point of the dialogue is for Adam and Jenny to confront their long-buried feelings for each other, but they continuously talk around the subject, rather than addressing it directly. The scene could have been shorter and more effective if LaBute hadn't been so enamored with having the characters verbally dance with lines that might work on the stage but fail in a movie.
The Shape of Things is not as complete a motion picture as In the Company of Men, but it's likely to appeal to the same type of audience. A similar world-view is certainly on display. Four solid performances help to overcome some of the film's shortcomings, and LaBute delivers a knockout final punch that will impact even those who see it coming. The Shape of Things is imperfect, but the flaws don't detract much from what is a singularly effective, grim perspective of contemporary romance.
© 2003 James Berardinelli
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
The Shape of Things
By: Kit Bowen
A contemporary love story set in a college town in which sex and art intertwine as the relationships between four college students become increasingly complicated.
The almost-too-clinical way Neil Labute's The Shape of Things makes its main point follows the title to a tee: it's all about how we perceive and shape things. Take undergraduate English major Adam (Paul Rudd), for example. He is your typical nerd, slightly overweight, his hair generally unkempt; he wears baggy pants and a worn-down corduroy jacket. Clearly he's in desperate need of some shaping (or at least a stylist). His sculptor? Unconventional graduate art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), who meets Adam in a museum just as she is about to deface a statue with spray paint. Even though they are as different as two people can be, they begin an intense relationship. Evelyn sees Adam as a work in progress and soon transforms him from geek to chic, cutting his hair, changing his clothes--even convincing him to get a nose job. As well, she opens his mind up to art and freedom he never experienced before. Adam's friends-- the girl-that-got-away Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and her jerky fiance Philip (Frederick Weller), Adam's former roommate--see the change immediately, especially Jenny, who rather likes the "new" Adam. But as Evelyn strengthens her hold on Adam, his emotional and physical evolution begins to take on unexpected consequences for all.
Story continues below
All four contestants in this game of love and modern relationships play it very well. Rudd (Object of My Affection) does a nice job of subtly changing himself from nerdy to attractive without really altering Adam's core personality, while Mol (Rounders) portrays Jenny not merely sweet and wholesome on the surface but with a warm human depth, especially when she grapples with her feelings for Adam. Newcomer Weller aptly handles the snarky Philip, even if he sometimes overdoes it. But the film ultimately belongs to Weisz. As Evelyn, the female version of Labute's typical muse--usually played by Aaron Eckhart as in films such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors--the British Weisz exquisitely encapsulates Shape's cold, calculated themes, even for all Evelyn's seemingly good intentions. On the flip side, Weisz also alienates herself from the audience as an unlikable character with no redemptive qualities in sight. It's a gutsy performance and Weisz takes the job seriously.
Neil Labute definitely likes to work out issues in his films. The writer/director entered the feature film arena with the very dark and disturbing comedy In the Company of Men, about two junior executives who want to "get back" at women, so they woo a colleague with the sole purpose of dumping her. It caused quite a stir when it premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, falling into either the "love it" (a brilliant commentary) or the "hate it" (misogynistic and amoral) camp. Shape of Things is an obvious follow-up to this; it's the woman's turn to be the manipulator. But instead of Men's communal underhandedness and deceitfulness, the actions in Shape are a solitary effort--and undertaken for reasons beyond simply "getting back" at men. How Labute quite frankly blows apart the modern relationship keeps you entirely engaged. For once it isn't about the woman scorned who stalks her man like a crazed banshee. Where the film falters somewhat, however, is in its execution. Shape of Things is almost too cold, too devoid of real emotion and, at times, a little preachy. We know it can be a pretty harsh world out there when it comes to relationships, but jeez, lighten up.
In The Shape of Things, writer/director Neil Labute molds another whopper of a tale about modern romance--but its hardly a "date" movie.
Movie review: 'The Shape of Things'
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
3 stars (out of 4)
One staple of romantic relationships is the desire to "fix" some of your partner's character traits. Evelyn, the heroine or anti-heroine (depending on your perspective) of Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," takes this art to greater lengths than most.
The movie, based on LaBute's play of the same name and starring the same four actors from the play, chronicles the makeover that beautiful art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) applies to Adam (Paul Rudd), a nerdy, somewhat chubby undergraduate who's ripe for someone to bring out his inner cutie. The changes affect not just his appearance but also his relationships with longtime, now-engaged friends Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller).
The material is sort of a throwback to LaBute's first two movies, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," after the bigger-budgeted, broader-canvassed "Nurse Betty" (in which he directed someone else's screenplay) and "Possession" (in which he adapted A.S. Byatt's novel). Like the first pair of films, LaBute once again homes in on an intimate group of men and women and the razor-edged sexual politics among them.
But "The Shape of Things" occupies its own distinct space from the first two movies. Neither "Company of Men," which satirically addresses misogyny as an offshoot of brutal male corporate culture, nor "Friends & Neighbors," which rubs your face in the grim love lives of the unfulfilled, is concerned with whether you like its characters.
Some of the behavior in "The Shape of Things" is every bit as nasty as in the other films, but this time LaBute's knife is sheathed in plusher fabric. Though you still sense some distance between the filmmaker and his creations, he lets you warm up to these people so you're on board as he explores the larger issues their behavior suggests.
Adam and Evelyn - the symbolic names are no accident - meet while he's working as a school museum guard and she literally crosses the line to spray-paint a sculpture that has had its genitalia covered. "You're cute. I don't like your hair," she tells him, and a romance is begun.
Soon she's suggesting wardrobe and styling fixes and taking him to graphic performance-art happenings. We don't see them there; we just hear the conversation afterward as she enthuses over one and he just doesn't get the artistic merit of a woman using her... well, you probably wouldn't either. She's of the art-equals-provocation-equals-truth school and butts heads with Philip, who's more of a regular-guy philistine, though his and Jenny's plan to get married underwater undercuts LaBute's presentation of them as straights.
LaBute doesn't pretend that his source material is anything other than a play. He keeps the action divided into 10 discrete scenes, with snippets of Elvis Costello's poisoned-romance songs (the musical equivalent of velvet-sheathed knives) serving as the links between them.
You must accept a certain theatricality to the material, as much of the action occurs off screen, and what's there hasn't been "opened up" so that conversations take place over multiple locations. The performances are scaled down from what they must have been in the theater, but LaBute's dialogue has its own particular rhythms that aren't entirely "realistic." And that's fine. The writing is smart, so you stick with the story on its own terms.
Rudd may be too handsome to establish Adam's supposed initial homeliness; his transformation comes more in the way he carries himself and the way others, particularly Jenny, relate to him. As such, his performance is convincing, warm and free of condescension, though LaBute can't help leaving in a shot of Adam glancing back at Jenny from a playground rocking horse, looking like a complete doofus. (It's a funny image, but poor guy...)
Mol brings a sweet simplicity to Jenny, while the oft-sneering Weller makes clear why Evelyn would have such an allergic reaction to Philip, though you don't figure how he and Adam became best friends in the first place.
The movie ultimately lies on Weisz's shoulders, though, as she has to convince you that Adam would give in to Evelyn's manipulations, her obvious beauty notwithstanding. And she does, her performance balancing seduction and the sense that she's one eye twinkle away from being a whack job. Evelyn is the character who would be most at home in the take-no-prisoners world of LaBute's earlier works, yet you suspect the director's sympathies might lie closest with her, or at least her inclination to shake things up.
Any meaningful dissection of "The Shape of Things" must revolve around the ending, yet revealing it would be a crime against art. Suffice it to say that LaBute is interested in the way that surfaces affect our perceptions of content, and how those perceptions can, in turn, become our reality.
His resolution is far from subtle, the last scene a veritable battle of opposing theses, stated bluntly. You become all too aware that these characters are vessels for ideas that LaBute has enjoyed setting in conflict. But they're engaging ideas nonetheless, and LaBute never loses sight of what shape he wishes this crafty story to take. In the end, his aim is true.
Review: LaBute's 'Things' a sexy, creepy mix
Director once again shows dark side of relationships
By Paul Clinton
Thursday, May 8, 2003 Posted: 3:30 PM EDT (1930 GMT)
(CNN) -- Writer/director Neil LaBute is one of America's most provocative playwrights and filmmakers.
His movies, beginning with "In The Company of Men" in 1997, then "Your Friends & Neighbors" (1998), "Nurse Betty" (2000), and "Possession" (2002), have explored the battle of the sexes on many levels, from the lightly comedic to the darkly dramatic.
With his latest effort, "The Shape of Things," LaBute returns to the dark side.
After the success of "In The Company of Men," which was about two cruel sexist pigs who play a nasty practical joke on a vulnerable woman, he was repeatedly asked if women were capable of the same type of deceitfulness. His answer is "The Shape of Things," based on his play of the same name. Both the play and the movie star Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller.
Set in a nameless college town, "The Shape of Things" begins in a museum, where Evelyn (Weisz) -- an intense young art graduate student working on her thesis -- is contemplating a statue of a male nude. She's not happy: the museum has covered the statue's genitalia with a large leaf.
Outraged at the move, she is about to deface the artwork with spray paint when she meets Adam (Rudd), a nerdy, needy fellow student who is working part-time at the museum. Despite their obvious differences, Adam is taken by the angry, beautiful Evelyn, and somehow manages to ask for her phone number -- which she promptly spray-paints onto the lining of his sports jacket.
The two begin dating, and slowly the highly opinionated Evelyn starts making Adam over. She encourages him to change his hairstyle, the way he dresses, get contact lenses -- he even undergoes a nose job.
Adam's transformation begins to alarm his best friends, Jenny (Mol) and Philip (Weller), who are engaged to be married. While aware that the changes have improved Adam's appearance, they begin to question Evelyn's motives.
As Adam becomes more and more physically attractive, he also becomes more and more dependent upon Evelyn. At one point, he asks what she could possibly see in him, and Evelyn replies, "Don't worry about 'why,' when 'what' is right in front of you."
Eventually, the strange dynamic between Adam and Evelyn spills over into the relationship between Jenny and Philip, and the four find themselves becoming awkwardly involved in each other's lives. The tension builds until it reaches a climax that blows their world apart.
Top-notch creative team
At the heart of all of LaBute's work is his strong sense of dialogue and character. The situations may seem contrived at times, but his feel for human foibles never goes astray.
He's also surrounded himself with the same creative team for most of his films, and in the case of "The Shape of Things," LaBute and his four actors have had lots of preparation since the play was mounted, first in London, and then in New York, where it won numerous awards. Weisz is also making her debut as a producer with this project.
LaBute has a knack for challenging our concepts of love and relationships, and for mixing entertainment with strong messages. This powerful look at society's obsession with looks -- with "the shape of things" -- will leave you with plenty of food for thought.
"The Shape of Things" opens in select markets on Friday, May 9, with more cities added later. The film is rated "R" for language.
Director/writer Neil LaBute is known for his challenging, sometimes scathing movies, including "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors."