May 9 - 15, 2003
Form and Dysfunction
Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things and Jordan Melamed's Manic
by Scott Foundas
The Shape of Things
Can there be art without humanity? So Neil LaBute seems to ask in The Shape of Things, his disarmingly funny new film with a doozy of a twist ending. It is, of course, something that many have asked themselves about LaBute's own work, which, despite its recent lapses into lighter-hearted terrain (Nurse Betty, Possession), has been resolutely committed to prying open the chest cavity of contemporary adult relationships without the aid of an anesthetic. A sadist? It's not hard to make that claim after witnessing LaBute's casual-bordering-on-gleeful approach to human suffering take shape in early films like In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. (Personally, I like to think of him as Woody Allen with horns and cloven hooves.) But if LaBute is sometimes prone to excess, it is rarely at the expense of that tightrope dance performed by his films, balanced precariously on the razor's edge of satire, over the precipice of absurdity. At his best, he holds a vaguely distorted funhouse mirror up to the audience, forcing us to see things we would rather keep hidden, daring us to turn away. And The Shape of Things may be his best, cruelest, most vital act of confrontation yet.
When we first see Adam (Paul Rudd), the stumbling, stammering English major with a work-study job as a museum security guard, he looks a bit like LaBute himself -- shaggy hair, paunchy gut, hand-me-down corduroy jacket, all hiding behind taped-together spectacles. Like many of LaBute's characters, Adam is just this side of a cartoon, a Gary Larson rendering of a terminally introverted, fatally unstylish guy. But we've all known guys like this (or been one ourselves), and so we take the bait. A few short strokes by Rudd and LaBute -- surface details about the way Adam looks, walks and talks -- and we understand, implicitly, that on life's marathon track this guy lags several hundred meters behind. If we know nothing, really, about him, we feel like we know everything. If only we could buy stock in appearances, LaBute seems to be saying, so high is the price that we put on them.
The Shape of Things tells the story of when Adam met Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, who's a major revelation in her biggest and meatiest part to date), a graduate art student with chopsticks in her hair and a penchant for defacing work that she deems less than honest. Theirs is a meet-cute made in Rock Hudson-Doris Day heaven: She's about to spray-paint a penis onto a statue whose genitals have been censored by an after-market fig leaf; he does his best -- or maybe not quite his best -- to talk her out of it. But then Evelyn looks at Adam quizzically, gives him the once-over (is it possible, he wonders, that she is checking him out?), and utters the two words he has been waiting God knows how long to hear; two seemingly innocuous words that, spoken one after the other, can melt a guy like Adam into a bubbling pool of hormonal ooze. "You're cute," she says -- with the caveat that he'd be even cuter if he did something about his hair -- and a relationship is born, along with a pattern in which something about his hair becomes something about his clothes becomes something about his nose, and so forth.
But such is the give and take of modern romance. "Almost everyone I've ever gone out with, if you could alter just one thing about them, then they'd be perfect." Words spoken not by Evelyn, but by the perky Jenny (Gretchen Mol), engaged to Adam's old roommate Phillip (Frederick Weller) and lamenting the fact that her betrothed has "about six of those one things, but the point is the same." It's LaBute's point that even the preening, spiky-haired Phillips of the world, the guys who pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, have a little bit of Adam in them -- that lust to become the perfect object of their significant other's desire, that willingness to reshape their own surfaces. Just as Evelyn seeks out that which is false in art, so LaBute has a bloodhound's nose for that which is false in relationships.
Built upon a series of intricately plotted reversals -- all too valuable to give away -- LaBute's magic carpet of a movie constantly wriggles out of our grasp, lifting us above the action to rethink everything we've just seen from some new, dizzying vantage. Though it is, like LaBute's first two films, a movie fundamentally about cruelty, it is equally a movie about the cruel folly of romance -- the calamitous comedy of trying to please the ones we love -- and about how a wily opportunist (not unlike LaBute himself) might seize upon that conundrum for his or her own gain. Which is to say that The Shape of Things contains not only a more varied and complex pattern than LaBute's previous films, but a newly autobiographical dimension too -- so deep a burrowing into the writer-director's catalog of themes and symbols and meanings that what emerges is a beautifully self-critical analysis of his own creative process from the inside out, worthy of comparison to Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse. It is also, much to the consternation of those who grouse about the talky, stagy aspects of LaBute's mise en scene, the director's most richly cinematic venture to date. Shooting in wide screen with the cinematographer James L. Carter, LaBute unfolds The Shape of Things in the same largely static, tableaulike style of his earlier work, but with a keener attention to color, composition and space than he has yet shown. And if there is an artificial stillness in the movie -- an absence of extras, background action or orchestral underscore -- it is a deliberate strategy, one that makes LaBute's proceedings that much more claustrophobic and inescapable.
"Moralists have no place in an art gallery." That quote, by the Chinese novelist Han Suyin, appears writ large, both literally and figuratively, near the end of The Shape of Things, but its implications cast a specter over the entire film. By invoking Han's words, LaBute -- no stranger to censors' plaster fig leafs -- isn't issuing a knee-jerk reaction against his critics (as some will suggest), but rather articulating a challenge to both himself and his audience. Can there be art without humanity? Or, more pointedly, humanity without artists like LaBute to take us through the lower depths? To borrow the words of LaBute's own screenplay, only indifference is suspect.
The Shape of Things
Verdict: Neal LaBute shapes another etched-in-acid look at the battle of the sexes.
By ELEANOR RINGEL GILLESPIE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
After the muted and sometimes muddle-headed "Possession," writer-director Neal LaBute revisits material he knows better than anyone -- the theater of cruelty that relationships between men and women can be. His "In the Company of Men" is generally regarded as the gold standard in the genre of sexual politics. The emotional evisceration in his new film, "The Shape of Things," is every bit as acute, but it ultimately lacks the lacerating impact of the earlier movie.
Based on LaBute's play of the same title, "Shape" shifts the playing field to a college campus. Adam (the sensational Paul Rudd), a dumpy schlump of a student, becomes an inexplicable object of affection for Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a sophisticated, beautiful and highly opinionated MFA candidate hard at work on her master's thesis. Like a distaff Pygmalion, she "perfects" Paul -- getting him to shed a few pounds, to dress better, even to swap his glasses for contact lenses. Paul's best friends, Philip (Frederick Weller in the part Aaron Eckhart played in "Company") and Jenny (Gretchen Mol, sweet and tentative) are suspicious, but they have no idea of LaBute's -- I mean, Evelyn's -- soaked-in-acid motive.
Some may find the movie too schematic. Others, too shockingly cruel. But all's fair in love and art, according to LaBute. Make that, unfair.
* 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4]
'Shape of Things': Great play, bad movie
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Published: Friday, May 9, 2003
A great play becomes a bad movie in "The Shape of Things."
Neil LaBute's play is a corker, packed with provocative ideas about love, morality and the relationship between truth and beauty. But LaBute has not finessed his play to the screen because he failed to account for the difference in the ways we appreciate theater and film.
Onstage, we accept a certain level of artifice. It can be OK if the characters seem manipulated by an author who's using them to illustrate ideas, and big, literary metaphors can work beautifully. But, for the most part, movies are about observation and behavior. They don't give us the distancing effect of the theater, where we're always conscious that the people on the stage are not the characters they're playing. Movies are realer, and false notes stick out.
They stick out like crazy in "The Shape of Things," in which an artist (Rachel Weisz) falls for a rumpl;ed student (Paul Rudd, in a corduroy blazer that's the male equivalent of a severe bun and glasses) and begins to transform him into a stud, to the consternation of his about-to-be-married friends (Frederick Weller and Gretchen Mol).
Even if LaBute had re-thought "Shape," he'd have problems. The rhythm of the characters' speech is distinctive, but what they say is dated, even though the play is only 2 years old (Who makes "Fatal Attraction" references in 2003?). And the actors are miscast not only because they're too old for their college-age parts but also because they haven't toned down their stage performances for the movie. All four were in the play in New York, and Weller and Rudd, in particular, behave as if they're still trying to project to the back of a theater instead of to the person standing two feet from them.
It's disappointing and oddly intriguing -- not because it's a good movie but because the reasons it isn't reveal so much about the difference between theater and film.
Men and women squabble to no good end
** [2 out of 4 stars]
Detroit Free Press
Published: Friday, May 9, 2003
Having proved he could handle dark comedy with "Nurse Betty" and period-piece romance with "Possession," writer-director Neal LaBute suits up again for a battle between the sexes in "The Shape of Things," which plays like the female response to his searing "In the Company of Men" -- albeit from a skewered male perspective.
While LaBute makes his point in this adaptation of his own play -- women can be just as cruel as men, with or without company -- the bare-bones production lacks the sting it presumably had on the stage, where the actors could be proven to be human. Here they just seem like mouthpieces for a cynic whose anger is more sophomoric than sincere.
The designated victim is Adam (Paul Rudd), a schlumpy museum guard who comes upon art school grad student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) just as she is about to deface a Greek statue that she argues has been defaced by the post-sculpture placement of a strategic fig leaf.
(Uh, Adam and Eve. Fig leaf. Do you think we get it?)
An argument ensues about the meaning of art and the burden of responsibility, which to Adam's and our astonishment ends with her giving up her digits.
Soon they are seeing each other, much to the disgust of Adam's best friend Philip (Frederick Weller), who is engaged to Jenny (Gretchen Mol). Jenny is less disturbed by the obvious effect Eve is having on Adam than she is by the feeling that she may have chosen the wrong guy.
There are some serious, if static, debates, mostly between Phil and Evelyn, about the purpose of art and the nature of relationships, but it's nothing any undergrad hasn't heard in dorm rooms or classrooms. LaBute saves a typical nasty twist for the end, but the drama is lost in speechy staginess.
"The Shape of Things" might have been mildly interesting on stage, but aside from shooting some scenes on a college campus, there's nothing cinematic here, either in the execution or the performances, which are little more than speeches. Some appropriately chosen songs from Elvis Costello's angry years enliven the soundtrack, but they fail as a Greek chorus.
Rudd and Weisz should be blamed only for accepting roles that do their talents little justice, while LaBute can be accused of shameless recycling.
** [2 out of 4 stars]
Crude, cruel approach to battle of the sexes
Mercury News [San Jose, California]
Published: Friday, May 9, 2003
Neil LaBute -- inspired as much by "Bloody" Sam Peckinpah as by George Bernard Shaw -- stages battles of the sexes like take-no-prisoners routs. Once the smoke and stinging rebukes clear, whoever is left standing is as demoralized and discredited as his or her victim.
LaBute's latest, "The Shape of Things" can be seen as an equal-time response to his own "In the Company of Men," the one about the heartless Gen-Xers who date, then diss and discard, the same woman. For "Shape," the director-writer reverses things: The person now pulling the strings is a beautiful post-grad art student named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and the one being jerked around -- or improved via "systematic makeover," depending on your mindset -- is a dorky classmate named Adam (Paul Rudd).
Adam and Eve, get it? What do you bet their ocean-side campus resembles a modern-day Eden? Once we stop asking "What in the world could she possibly see in him?" we're off and running -- straight into that primordial bog where guys gets theirs and girls glower sadistically.
The problem with "Shape" is that it's exactly what it seems: a recycled four-character play (Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller co-star) that someone mistook for a clever movie. And while Weisz, also now in "Confidence," commands our attention as never before with her fascistic free spirit, for her this vehicle is no more than an acting exercise, as crude as it is cruel. LaBute's kiss-off: a "She Loves Me Not" gallery sign with the neon "Not" flashing off and on. Subtle "Shape" ain't.
The Shape of Things
* * * * [4 out of 5 stars]
The Arizona Republic
May. 9, 2003 12:00 AM
I'm glad to see director Neil LaBute is back doing what he does best: creating some of the most memorably cruel characters in modern cinema.
In The Shape of Things, adapted from LaBute's play, we're not exactly sure who that character is going to be until the very end. But one thing's certain: LaBute is a master at mixing morals, emotions and human frailty into a compelling tale.
But this isn't just an exercise in how low you can go. LaBute's multilayered script forces us to ask questions about ourselves as we watch the tragedy unfold.
LaBute's cinematic style is as stark as his story line, creating indelible images to illustrate his dark but seductive view of the world.
Sadly, LaBute's more humane works - Nurse Betty and Possession - are probably his best known. The Shape of Things is more in the tradition of his more powerful, if unrelentingly pessimistic films, Your Friends & Neighbors and In the Company of Men.
Instead of showing people at their best, LaBute tends to like them when they're at their worst: cheating on their mates, manipulating others and betraying so-called friends. His drama comes from the secret lies that people tell, the ones they never reveal.
The story focuses on Adam (Paul Rudd), a rumpled academic type who meets the wild and exotic Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) while working at a museum. Evelyn, an art student, takes a shine to Adam, and he's soon losing weight, updating his clothes and getting a new haircut.
The transformation (undergone by the actor through use of prosthetics and special costumes) draws opposite reactions from Adam's two closest friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller), who are engaged to each other.
Jenny, who once was interested in Adam, finds herself attracted to his new self. She also starts to question her relationship with Philip. Meanwhile, Philip sees Evelyn as a danger from the start, as she quickly drives a wedge between him and Adam.
Meanwhile, Evelyn's demands that Adam improve himself become more and more outlandish, even to the point of taking him to a plastic surgeon. Hopelessly in love, Adam finds himself unable to resist her requests.
The story works as a basic romantic drama, but with LaBute, there's always more going on than meets the eye. We're left to wonder who will turn out to be the bad guy and how bad he'll be.
And the shocker of an ending will leave even LaBute fans shaking their heads in disgust - and admiration.
The Shape of Things (2003)
You have to let this one sink in a little bit. I emerged from Neil LaBute's latest misanthropy-fest with a feeling of mild disgust. I recalled what I then thought to be an extraordinarily klutzy performance from Paul Rudd, a pointlessly hideous character played by Rachel Weisz and two useless supporting players in the form of Gretchen "Did you miss me?" Mol and Fred Weller. I also thought that the film had a bizarre moral formulation, giving the protagonist only two options: be a frustrated, repressed loser or a manufactured pretty boy.
A mere few hours later, I had changed my mind entirely. What seemed at first to be gross cluelessness became sly calculation; what I saw as blunt moralizing I now perceived as a neat moral reversal. The Shape of Things works as a sobering twist on Pygmalion, devirginizing, so to speak, the fairy tale that inspired a hit musical and countless films. The movie is almost spiteful -- what, he can't let us have our fairy tales?!? -- but I can deal with it if you can.
LaBute adapts his own stage play here, and it shows: this is a very theatrical four-character drama. Adam (Rudd) meets Evelyn (Weisz) in an art museum. He's a security guard, a nerd in a corduroy jacket, think glasses and a nondescript haircut. She's a "free spirit," there to deface a statue that had its genitalia covered up by puritanical curators. He decides to ask her out, and soon they begin a relationship, though he is insecure about what she could possibly see in him.
Almost immediately, there are slight changes in Adam's appearance. He gets a new haircut. He loses some weight. Before long, he becomes less clumsy, less apt to do things like tumble off his bike, more confident in his general demeanor. These alterations please his friend Jenny (Gretchen Mol), who starts seeing more in him than she did when they had class together, and unpleasantly surprise his other friend, and Jenny's fiancee, Phillip (Fred Weller). Everyone is a little freaked, however, after Evelyn takes Paul to get a nose job.
My main complaint until about two-thirds through the movie was that Paul Rudd is an obnoxious actor. Indeed, his performance through the first two acts is grating, but the inevitable realization is that this is intentional. Whether the intention to irritate forgives the actual irritation is a topic for another day, but the point is this: The Shape of Things frustrates, and it means to do so. Like David Mamet's Oleanna, though perhaps not to that extent, LaBute's movie will make you angry and won't apologize for it.
To me, the end result was worth the frustration. I've long been irritated by films like She's All That and Drive Me Crazy, films in which unique young people are transformed into bland hunks and beauties, and then everything is okay because they go to the prom. This is maybe the first script to realize that it's all a little creepy. You can't force someone to become a different person overnight. It's not going to happen, and if it does, something is wrong.
LaBute has more on his mind than merely that simple moral paradigm. There's stuff here about the nature of art and the merits of expression when expression damages others. Does art have to be a physical specimen? Must it be an inanimate object? Can it simply be a statement, a fact, an assertion? Can it be an assertion embodied in a person?
These questions are asked, not answered. I insist that they aren't as interesting as the film's Pygmalion aspect, which is what has remained with me. It's potent stuff, a riff on a formula that has long needed a good riff. My Fair Lady has worn out its welcome, and there's a lot more George Bernard Shaw to update. Plenty of Ovid, as well.
And though I guess Paul Rudd did precisely what was asked of him here, I still wouldn't hire him were I a casting director. There's something odd about him.
© 2003 Eugene Novikov
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
In this dance, someone is headed for a fall
Published: Friday, May 9, 2003
More fun than a barrel of misanthropes, The Shape of Things - adapted from Neil LaBute's 2001 play, with the same handsome quartet of thespians he steered through the London and New York stage productions - is a twisted, Pygmalionesque tap dance full of signature LaBute motifs.
Set on a bland, bucolic college campus, The Shape of Things begins with a tone of almost Beverly Hills 90210 superficiality. A boy and a girl meet cute - he's got a work-study job as a museum guard, she's an art student bent on making a "statement" with a can of spray paint on the marble statue of a male figure prudishly cloaked in a fig leaf.
LaBute has named these characters Adam (Paul Rudd) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) - get it? Fig leaf, Adam, Eve(lyn) . . . there's some kind of Garden of Eden thing going on here, right? And temptation, and the Fall, must be just around the corner.
Adam, a schlumpy, eager-to-please everyguy, starts hanging out with the perky, beguiling Evelyn. He shows off his cute bohemian girl to best friends Phillip (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol). There is lots of talk, which usually begins with banal chitchat and then arcs into acidic bursts of repressed rage and loathing. As the semester progresses, Adam starts looking happier, healthier, hotter even. Evelyn has inspired him to wear sportier clothes (out with the ratty corduroy blazer, in with the Tommy Hilfiger), get a cooler haircut, listen to hipper music. Jenny begins to take notice. Uh-oh.
And Evelyn continues to plug away on her thesis project - a performance-art piece, the subject of which she says little. The denouement of LaBute's movie (a movie punctuated with terse blasts of Elvis Costello on the soundtrack) is Evelyn's presentation.
A meditation on human cruelty, identity, art and the shallow waters of popular culture, The Shape of Things is, at times, annoyingly coy - an intellectual coyness, laced with contempt. But there's also provocative stuff here, and four actors very good at their game (especially Weisz, whose part is the richest, the trickiest). LaBute's lacerating take on the battle of the sexes, on the betrayals and debasements littering the field like bloody corpses, isn't for everyone. But for the rubberneckers and masochists among us, The Shape of Things is hard to beat. Although you might feel as if you've been beaten up watching it.
James Rocchi, Netflix
***** [5 out of 5 stars]
"Another brainy, shocking tale from Neil LaBute puts cruel modern twists on some old-fashioned themes."
Adam (Paul Rudd) is a part-time worker at the campus art museum; Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is a post-graduate art student set on defacing a nude statue -- or, more specifically, the fig leaf tacked onto it by a modesty-minded censor. Adam really doesn't want Evelyn to do anything crazy (at least on his shift), and he can sympathize with her plight, but she's a woman with a mission. The two seem very different, which is only part of why they're attracted to each other.
Evelyn and Adam start dating, and his life becomes better for it; he gets a better haircut, drops a few pounds, loses the glasses and upgrades his fashion sense. His friends Phillip (Frederick Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol) are of two minds: Phillip just plain doesn't like Evelyn, and Jenny has always kinda liked Adam, but now likes him much more.
There are a variety of ways this plot could play out, and it's to LaBute's credit that where Evelyn and Adam's romance winds up is as truly satisfying as it is truly shocking. In his gut-punch early films such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute's examinations of the games that people play and what they'll do to score points marked him as an artist with the vision and will to explore the cruel paths taken by intellect and emotion. The Shape of Things gradually takes us from cozy comedy to scalding drama, which is even more perverse.
LaBute took both his play and its original cast from the stage to the screen. All are excellent, but it's Rudd who carries the film with a performance worthy of Oscar consideration. Rudd's work here conveys both physical and emotional transformation -- you see him become a new man under Weisz's care -- and engages you with a complex mix of sympathy and contempt. Weisz is almost as superb, mixing calculating brilliance with go-to-hell-frankness, capturing Evelyn's naked sexuality and hidden emotions.
LaBute, as both writer and director, is the true star here -- from the gracefully captured glow of the campus setting to his choice of an all-Elvis Costello soundtrack of songs as brainy, brisk and brutal as the issues at play. Early in his career, LaBute's thorny, Mamet-influenced work led many to confuse LaBute's misanthropy for misogyny. Look again at In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, and you'll note that LaBute's characters -- male and female -- are all given equal room to fail. In The Shape of Things, LaBute also reminds us that ultimately, he is a moralist -- an artist with a strong sense of right and wrong, but also an intellect with a sense of humanity and heart.
There are moments in The Shape of Things that astonish. Mol and Rudd sit in a children's playground and shyly talk about their sex lives and unrequited crushes on each other in a perfect encapsulation of college life. Weisz's climactic monologue presentation of her graduate project is brilliant, delivered with the cruel fury of a monster who feels she's been wronged. LaBute's characters may make all the mistakes we would, but he's a filmmaker who never fails in making real, ringing drama out of modern life.
Editorial Rating: 8 out of 10
Acting: 8 out of 10
Plot: 8 out of 10
Soundtrack and Visuals: 8 out of 10
Entertainment Value: 7 out of 10
When awkward museum guard Adam (Paul Rudd) meets worldly grad student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), he falls head over heels in love for the first time in his life. The only problem is that Evelyn's influence begins to transform the former geek into a cool new person, an evolution that confuses and discomforts his oldest friends, engaged couple Jenny and Philip.
Neil LaBute's films are to relationships what "Jaws" is to the ocean. No act is too crass for the antiheroes of LaBute's caustic psychodramas, where every relationship is either shrouded in dark ulterior motives ("In the Company of Men") or simply an illusion ("Nurse Betty"). His latest project marries both these themes to mannered yet strong performances from its small cast. The layered script is alternately hilarious and realistic, horrifying and stilted, compelling viewers to watch all the way to the devastating conclusion.
- Erich Scholz
** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
The Shape of Things
He's Putty in Her Hands
By Gene Seymour
May 9, 2003
(R). Neil LaBute directs this adaptation of his espresso-dark play chronicling the strange romance between a willful, manipulative art student (Rachel Weisz) and a sweet, malleable undergrad (Paul Rudd). Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller, as with Weisz and Rudd, reprise their stage roles in this provocative, impeccably acted, but ultimately acrid chamber piece. 1:37 (vulgarisms, some sexual situations). At select theaters.
Neil LaBute composes dialogue and creates interpersonal drama at a level far above most American movies, whether they're high-budget Hollywood or low-budget independent. Which may not be so much an endorsement for LaBute as it is an indictment of American movies. That LaBute has a sharp mind, a sophisticated ear and a clearly defined artistic vision is apparent to you as you're watching "The Shape of Things." Why doesn't this feel like good news?
Mostly it's because, as with LaBute's previous films, "In the Company of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998), he's not at all interested in delivering good news, especially when it comes to relations between the sexes. Adapted by LaBute from his provocative stage play of two years ago, "The Shape of Things" takes what appears to be a slick, placid formula for situation comedy and shoots our expectations down a long, steep shaft, making us queasy and annoyed, rather than scared or enlightened.
If there is any good news to report here, it's that LaBute, having directed two other films he didn't write, 2000's big-hearted "Nurse Betty" and last year's underrated "Possession," seems to show more visual proficiency as he neatly pulls off the daunting task of "opening up" a four-character chamber piece. He also is fortunate to have the same four actors - Gretchen Mol, Frederick Weller, Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd - who were in the play. Their familiarity with the characters provides the human grounding - and the humaneness - that the story itself lacks.
Weisz probably has the toughest role of all, sustaining a poker-faced spikiness as Jenny, a graduate art student at what's depicted here as a staid California college. She's about to deface a nude statue at a museum in the name of Truth when Adam (Rudd), a shy, shlumpy undergraduate working as a security guard, steps in to stop her. Instead, he meekly agrees to look the other way, and she spray paints her phone number in the lining of his corduroy jacket.
They date. She begins to gently but firmly encourage him to lose weight, fix his nose, change his appearance. The makeover is at first a source of bemusement to Adam's brashly conservative ex-roommate Philip (Weller) and Philip's placid fiancee (Mol). Gradually, the change in Adam sets in motion upheavals in all four protagonists' relationships to each other as Jenny continues to blithely work on her thesis project - her "thingee," that turns out to be not nearly as cute as it sounds.
When that project and its implications are revealed, your response is not too dissimilar to the way you respond to "The Shape of Things." Both shock, disturb, provoke and might perversely impress you with their cheekiness. But that's about it.
**** [4 out of 4 stars]
LaBute's career takes a new 'Shape'
By David Sterritt | Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor
The hard thing about being an enfant terrible is staying an enfant terrible. Neil LaBute, who returns this week with "The Shape of Things," is a case in point.
Mr. LaBute made a noisy splash with his first movie, "In the Company of Men," about two obnoxious yuppies who seduce and abandon a woman they scarcely know as revenge against all the other women who've dissed them over the years.
The picture was heavy-handed and mean-spirited, but many moviegoers responded to its sheer audacity. Something similar happened when LaBute released "Your Friends & Neighbors."
Some critics concluded that LaBute was a boy wonder who'd sink below the box-office horizon once his brand of shock value wore thin.
Not content to follow such a predictable route, LaBute went mainstream with a vengeance last summer. "Possession" featured high-profile stars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam) and a deeply romantic story borrowed from an A.S. Byatt novel.
I was no fan of LaBute's more abrasive pictures, but his Hollywood haymaker was even worse. So I was relieved when he told me in an interview that his next picture - "The Shape of Things" - would return to the idiosyncratic style of his early work.
He was telling the truth and, best of all, the new film is easily the best he's made so far.
Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn, an art student at a small college that follows the contemporary fashion of valuing self-centered assertiveness over empathy and cooperation.
Paul Rudd plays Adam, an insecure young man who becomes her boyfriend after a conversation in a local museum takes surprising turns.
Adam becomes more assured under Evelyn's influence, growing in self-esteem but losing some of the satisfaction he formerly found in his friendship with Jenny and Philip, also students at the college.
In a purposeful and organic way, "The Shape of Things" evolves from the story of one couple to the story of two, as interactions between the four main characters intensify.
Then it veers in a startling direction shortly before the end, revealing a whole other dimension in the affair between Evelyn and Adam that changes the meaning of everything we thought we knew about them.
I won't give this away, but it's the sort of plot twist only the craftiest - and most perverse - storyteller could come up with.
It transforms the picture from a well-made romantic comedy-drama into a disturbing deconstruction of truisms about love, loyalty, learning, maturing, and the complex relationships among art, ethics, and honesty.
>From being a filmmaker who tries too hard - straining for edgy effrontery in his early films, then panting after Hollywood cuteness in his big-studio effort - LaBute has finally found a productive middle path.
He's woven an engrossing yarn that combines his critical, often astringent intelligence with a concern for human feelings that's miles beyond anything found in his previous pictures.
He gets first-rate help from Ms. Weisz and Mr. Rudd as well as from Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller as their friends. But the lion's share of credit goes to LaBute, who based the script on his play of the same title, already a success on the London and Off-Broadway stages.
He's coming of age as an artist, and his future looks brighter than I ever would have suspected a year ago.
Enfant terrible or not, he's starting to become a substantial figure in American film.
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Love, war give shape to 'Things'
Jeff Strickler, Star Tribune [Minneapolis]
Published May 9, 2003
Neil LaBute has never put much stock in the old saw, "All's fair in love and war." From his perspective, love and war are the same thing.
His previous studies of antagonistic romance include "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors." Rounding out that trilogy is "The Shape of Things," adapted from his play. Like the other films, it could be considered an anti-date movie.
Adam (Paul Rudd, "The Cider House Rules") is the prototypical college nerd. He buys his clothes at secondhand stores and combs his hair once every three days or so, if he thinks of it. He has long lusted after the beautiful Jenny (Gretchen Mol, "The Rules of Attraction"), but she's clearly out of his league; besides, she has just announced her engagement to Adam's best friend, Phillip (Fred Weller, "The Business of Strangers").
Joining this trio of stock characters is the flamboyant Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, also appearing in "Confidence"). Evelyn and Adam start dating, and she starts working on his image. He loses weight (Rudd wears prosthetics in the early reels), sheds his glasses for contacts, gets a decent haircut and updates his wardrobe. Suddenly he's hip, and just as suddenly, Jenny notices.
Now this ugly-duckling story has the potential to turn really ugly. Adam finally has the chance to get what he has always wanted -- Jenny -- but at what cost? Is it worth stealing your best friend's fiancee? And what about Adam's relationship with Evelyn?
The four actors, who originated their roles on stage, know the characters well and have developed a keen sense for the interaction among them. This is especially evident in the scenes in which Adam and Jenny are tentatively exploring the possibility of a relationship. She makes a move, ever so slight, in his direction, then pulls back to monitor his reaction. His response is equally muted as he tries to judge whether he's correctly interpreting her subtle signals.
Mol has the most difficult role. Jenny easily could come off as unfeeling and shallow: Not only is she thinking about dumping Phillip, but she's doing it for a guy she wouldn't look at twice until he started using hair gel. But Mol makes Jenny seem more confused than calculating, more vulnerable than aggressive. We don't see her as a villain.
LaBute has done a good job of "opening up" his stage script for the screen. It's more talky than the average feature, but that's true of all his movies. He moves the conversations around enough -- art gallery, city park, apartment, college common area -- that the production doesn't feel stagebound.
And just when you think you know where LaBute is going, he uncorks a dandy surprise. We won't spoil it for you, but keep in mind that in his world, there is no remorse.
Los Angeles Times
May 9, 2003
Feminine wile loses 'Shape'
Theatricality and a transparent seductress diminish writer-director Neil LaBute's twist on the battle of the sexes and manipulation as a devilishly fine art.
By Kevin Thomas, Times Staff Writer
In his remorseless yet compelling 1997 debut film "In the Company of Men," writer-director Neil LaBute revealed how nasty and cruel young white males, clad in an all but impervious armor of entitlement, could take out their frustrations and anger on women. With "The Shape of Things," which he adapted from his 2001 play of the same name, LaBute shows that women are capable of treating men in much the same manner.
Unfortunately, this film is not as convincing as LaBute's first feature, for it betrays its origins in the theatricality of its dialogue, resulting in an aura of artificiality. An even larger problem lies in LaBute's conception of its heroine and how he has directed Rachel Weisz to play her. For "The Shape of Things" to work, it is essential for Weisz's Evelyn to come across as a spellbinding seductress rather than the clearly disturbed troublemaker she so obviously is.
With his principals named Adam and Evelyn, LaBute must have had the fall from the Garden of Eden in mind, a dawning of the battle of the sexes, as it were. In any event, LaBute seems ever intent on giving heterosexuality a bad name. Paul Rudd's nerdy Adam is a part-time guard at a museum on the campus of a California coast college where he is an English major.
Just as his shift is about to end, he comes upon Evelyn, a graduate art student, stepping inside the ropes surrounding an enormous Herculean Greek or Roman statue to which a plaster fig leaf has been applied in deference to community sensibilities. It is Evelyn's intent to paint onto the fig leaf that which it is concealing in the name of truth. She easily disarms the shy, ineffectual Adam by offering him her phone number. In an instant, it is clear that she sees in Adam clay to be molded.
Using sex as her weapon, she quickly has Adam in her thrall for a makeover. Jogging off 20 pounds, plus a decent haircut and some new clothes work wonders on Adam, who even goes along with having his slightly bulbous nose subtly narrowed. Adam emerges a strikingly handsome, trim young man whose new image naturally boosts his self-esteem. Yet Evelyn keeps on tightening her leash and alienating his friends Philip (Frederick Weller), Adam's ex-roommate, and Philip's pretty fiancee Jenny (Gretchen Mol).
Not surprisingly, Evelyn has a hidden agenda, as did the Aaron Eckhart character in "In the Company of Men," and while it proves to a clever jolter, its impact is diminished because Evelyn is such a cold, transparent manipulator from the get-go. Had she been capable of being disarmingly adorable, "The Shape of Things," for all its theatricality, might have generated considerably more meaning and impact. It's too bad she isn't, for Evelyn is a complex character, at once insufferably pretentious in regard to her views on art, a fearless truth-teller adroit at skewering Philip for the obnoxious male chauvinist pig that he is, yet painfully out of touch with herself and her motives. In a stronger film, the irony that Evelyn could be said to have an ultimately positive effect on the three individuals around her would cut deeper.
Evelyn is a neurotic control freak who kids herself that she's making bold statements about the nature of art; had "The Shape of Things" been sharper it might have emerged as a provocative comment on the notion that anything can be called art. Evelyn has a large banner stating that "Moralists have no place in an art gallery," a sentiment some people and most critics would go along with, but its effect is amusing because it is a quote from the late novelist Han Suyin, who had a tendency to be as self-important as Evelyn.
Mol comes across appealingly as a nice young woman drawn to Adam before his makeover and now beset by his inability to throw off the chains in which Evelyn has imprisoned him.
Weller works hard at being repellent, adopting an off-putting mannered way of speaking that at times seems as if he is doing an impression of Christian Slater's impression of Jack Nicholson.
Rudd is a consistent charmer, providing Adam with all the shadings absent from Weisz's Evelyn.
"The Shape of Things," alas, is pretty flat.
The Rolling Stone Review
*** [3 out of 4]
Adam (Paul Rudd), a nerdy guard, and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a cool art student, meet at a museum exhibit. He tries to stop her from defacing a statue. No luck. But she takes him to bed, whispering wicked-sexy things new to this fat-assed loser. He introduces her to his college buds: Philip (Frederick Weller), a jock, and Jenny (Gretchen Mol), Philip's fiancee. They don't like Evelyn, who makes over Adam with hair, diet, designer threads and a nose job. Then, bam! He's such a stud, even Jenny wants a piece.
It could be a sitcom. Since Rudd has a recurring role on Friends, you may be lulled into thinking it is. Warning: Never be lulled by Neil LaBute. The playwright (Bash, The Mercy Seat) and filmmaker (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) is a world-class agitator. Shape, which LaBute directed onstage in London and New York with the same superb cast, is filled with nasty jolts, notably the ending, which makes you rethink all that came before. The actors nail the comic sting in every line, punctuated by eleven prime Elvis Costello songs. LaBute shoots some scenes outdoors, though the film still feels like a play. But his ideas on art and humanity will make you hoot, holler, curse the actors, damn LaBute and argue like hell with your date. What else do you want from a movie?
(May 2, 2003)
The Shape of Things
By CHRIS VOGNAR / The Dallas Morning News
You can hear the gears churning throughout The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's most recent and most schematic vivisection of modern romance. If In the Company of Men was an exercise, then this is a full-on calisthenic routine.
And if Men was a study of poisoned testosterone, then Shape is a calculated attempt to give the fairer sex its due. Call it Pygmalion with claws. Or perhaps The Evil That Women Do, with Rachel Weisz standing in for Charles Bronson.
Ms. Weisz is Evelyn, a graduate art student who plays for keeps. Visiting a museum with the intention of defacing a sculpture, she meets and charms Adam (Paul Rudd), a nerdy, overweight security guard. They start dating, and Adam starts changing: cooler clothes, thinner bod, cosmetic surgery. And he doesn't seem to have time for his old friends, namely Phillip (Frederick Weller, who found himself on the wrong end of female wrath in The Business of Strangers) and his girlfriend, Jenny (former Vanity Fair cover girl Gretchen Mol), a former object of Adam's desire.
Like much of Mr. LaBute's work, The Shape of Things wants to be provocative. It also wants to say something about the excuses that artists make for treating people badly, an idea also explored in a similar (and similarly flawed) upcoming film, dot the i. Both films have a secret that spills out in the end, and neither offers a compelling reason to care what happens before the spilling. Shape is all concept, and it's a delayed concept, so the bulk of the story has nothing to lean on but its twist -- which comes too late to help much. The word "gimmick" comes to mind.
Which is a shame, because Mr. LaBute actually has some compelling relationship matters on his mind. People do change their identities to fit the contours of a relationship; it's one of many compromises that we make in order to coexist with someone. But compromise just isn't very sexy, or provocative, while deception can be both. And so we have another round of emotional ambush a la LaBute, a vaguely new variation on an old theme. Meanwhile, those gears keep churning, audibly. It's hard to be a keen social observer when you're so busy setting up your Big Finish. And when the big finish finally arrives, it feels clunky and overly literal.
Both leads do their best to become actual characters, rather than cogs in a scheme; they add just enough life to make you wish that Shape had somewhere more interesting to take them (and us). The well-chosen Elvis Costello songs help create a bit of ironic distance. But after In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors and now this, Mr. LaBute is in danger of becoming an arch, one-trick relationship pony. In other words, he's starting to get boring.
Published in The Dallas Morning News: 05.09.03
Wolf Entertainment Guide
By: William Wolf
The Shape of Things
Writer-director Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" runs pretty much the same as his play from which it springs. It's a well acted, nasty tale involving a self-centered, manipulative and disturbed young art graduate student with a personal mission that is ultimately revealed, and as with other material by LaBute, it deals with male-female conflict and confrontation. The end result is disillusionment. Yet there's another aspect--a lacerating view of the depths to which so-called contemporary art has fallen.
If you've seen some of the junk that passes for art in many of our museums and galleries, you may have a clue as to what's afoot. But the immediate setting involves the impetuous grad student named Evelyn, played with much skill by Rachel Weisz in a reprise of the part she performed on stage in New York and London. She has arrived at the museum where undergraduate English major Adam (Paul Rudd, who also did the part on stage) works part-time as a guard, and she intends a protest defiling a male stature. In the relationship that develops, Evelyn exerts more and more influence over the smitten Adam.
There is another couple involved--Philip, played by Frederick Weller, and Jenny, portrayed by the attractive Gretchen Mol, both of whom did their parts on stage. Complications grow in the relationship between the four. Philip is a boorish character and Jenny, beginning to have second thoughts about him, is feeling more and more of a revived attraction to Adam.
LaBute is less interested in the love aspects per se, and more concerned with the volatility of the relationships and the effects of what Eveyln is pursuing. The film is venomous with the points that it is making, and that accounts for its effectiveness and ability to be involving. LaBute opens it up just enough to make it a movie and not a stage work. The four actors, having worked together in the stage productions, make a strong ensemble on screen as well. A Focus Features release.
*** 1/2 [3.5 out of 5 stars]
Review by: Warren Curry
Just when you thought Neil LaBute was embracing a softer disposition after his last two relatively lighthearted outings, Nurse Betty and Possession, here he comes with his latest venture into the horrors of contemporary inhumanity, The Shape of Things. LaBute's return to cinematic form can obviously be traced to the fact that, unlike his last two films, the filmmaker also authored the screenplay for The Shape of Things, based on his stage play of the same name. This is LaBute's best film since his debut, In The Company of Men, but detractors will probably point to the fact that what he's done here is basically just quote the themes and structure of that film while being content simply to reverse the gender roles. At his most effective, LaBute is probably the finest purveyor of the practice of filmmaker as puppet master, pulling the strings of his audience in a tantalizing and ruthless way.
At times an almost cartoon-like embodiment of ineptitude, Adam (Paul Rudd), a student at Mercy College, meets fellow student, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), as she's about to vandalize a statue in the art museum where he works as a security guard. This odd first meeting leads to a romantic coupling between the two opposites -- Evelyn being a volatile (or passionate, depending on your point of view) artist, while Adam is the good natured, easy going everyman. Evelyn convinces Adam that he should change his slovenly ways, and as their relationship progresses, so, in a sense, does Adam -- the young man drops several pounds, sharpens up his wardrobe, changes his hairstyle and goes to even further lengths to tremendously upgrade his appearance. Adam's friends, the bouncy, happy Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and the cynical, hard-edged Philip (Frederick Weller), themselves a couple, are reticent to accept that Evelyn's influence is really in Adam's best interest.
The plot of this film hinges on a big reveal, so I would be remiss to detail the story any further. The Shape of Things is a shrewdly calculated movie, and LaBute an artist who isn't content to just stick the knife in the viewer -- he also relishes giving it a final, definitive twist. One might even fairly wonder if the man's motivation for creating films and plays is solely to upset his audience. But it's hard to deny that the reaction he nearly flogs out of you is sure to lead to some amount of analysis. The Shape of Things will unquestionably stir discussion, and if we truly welcome the evolution of an interactive dimension to our entertainment, then it seems logical that LaBute is a filmmaker whose work we should value.
Although the film only contains a total of four characters, it doesn't feel small or confined. The film is, of course, dialogue-driven but isn't "talky." The characters aren't shaped to be replicas of people you know, but many of their characteristics should be easy to recognize. LaBute uses the characters as tools to satisfy the end goal and his brand of social commentary isn't interested in the slice-of-life narrative form. There's a button pushing agenda, but it goes down easier because of the film's satirical aspects. Yes, this movie, thanks to some of the bloated behavior of its characters, is quite funny.
Paul Rudd is note-for-note perfect as Adam. A man so kind hearted yet oblivious that he invites your affection and pity. Rachel Weisz is just the right amounts of conniving, sexy and mysterious -- alluring but alienating (it's an eye opening moment when she physically confronts Philip during an early disagreement). The noticeable casting issue is that LaBute, in using the play's original cast, has chosen performers to play college students who are certainly older than the age of their characters. At most, this was a minor distraction to me.
While I definitely recommend The Shape of Things, I can't help but hope that LaBute will challenge himself more with his next effort. It feels that with this project he's reached a limit -- not so much thematically, but in the structure of the vehicle he uses to explore these themes. He's not breaking any new ground with this film and is guilty of stealing from him previous work. The Shape of Things is clever enough to warrant overlooking any of these transgressions, but let's hope that LaBute doesn't move on to become merely a second-rate version of himself.
'Shape' pallid, disappointing
By Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News [Denver]
May 9, 2003
An exercise in theatrical trickery, Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things purports to delve into the deepest nature of both relationships and art.
In a final scene in an art gallery, the walls are emblazoned with a motto: "Moralists have no place in the art gallery," a statement that vaguely supports LaBute's now-familiar shock tactics.
For some, The Shape of Things may evoke memories of LaBute's astringent In the Company of Men. Despite the comedy of Nurse Betty and the literary pretensions of Possession, I'm beginning to wonder whether LaBute isn't a one-trick pony.
The enmity between the sexes that fuels LaBute's work has begun to feel shallow, a tapped-out vein that can't easily be traced to any deep source. This time, the calculated cruelty finds its way to a college campus, an environment that lacks the competitive jostling that added weight to In the Company of Men.
Now we're in the company of students, a considerable drop down the ladder of interest.
To make the movie, LaBute employs the cast he used on Broadway.
Paul Rudd plays Adam, a young man who works as a security guard at a museum. He also takes courses at a local university.
On his job, he meets Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an art student who's doing graduate work. She attracts his attention when she threatens to deface a statue as an artistic statement. She says she can tolerate only art that's truthful, which is why she wants to paint over the fig leaf that covers the statue's genitals.
Nerdy and overweight, Adam gradually responds to Evelyn's coaching. She's a rebellious type, and her sexual favors help Adam loosen up, shed pounds and gain self-confidence. She's a one-woman self-help course.
Adam's former roommate (Frederick Weller) is about to marry a campus beauty (Gretchen Mol). Adam never worked up the nerve to tell Mol that he liked her. Weller's Philip defends himself with walls of conceit. He takes an instant dislike to Evelyn.
For reasons that become clear when the movie ends, Rudd and Weisz give performances that flirt with parody.
LaBute concludes with a twist that must have been intended to operate with the ferocity of a blow to the solar plexus - or maybe lower on the anatomy.
But the impact feels muted, perhaps because the drama seems less like a deep exploration of human behavior than a piece of conceptual art.
I admired In the Company of Men, which connected corporate and other predatory forms of male behavior. By comparison, Shape of Things feels pallid. Instead of characters, LaBute seems to have created lab rats, those who chew and those who get chewed up as they race through the movie's artificial maze.
There's anger here, to be sure, but to me at least, this helping of rage feels recycled.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
*** 1/2 [3.5 out of 4 stars]
May 9, 2003
BY ROGER EBERT
The world of Neil LaBute is a battleground of carnage between the sexes. Men and women distrust one another, scheme to humiliate one another, are inspired to fearsome depths of cruelty. Their warfare takes place in the affluent habitats of the white upper middle class--restaurants, bookstores, coffeeshops, corporate offices, campuses, museums and apartments of tasteful sterility. Although one of his Gender Wars films was shot in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the other two in Southern California, there is no way to tell that from the information on the screen. All of his characters seem to live in clean, well-lighted, interchangeable places.
"The Shape of Things" is the third of these films. First came "In the Company of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998). Then there were two mainstream films, "Nurse Betty" (2000) and "Possession" (2002). Now we are back in the world of chamber dramas involving a handful of intimately linked characters. The first film was driven by a man of ferocious misanthropy. The second involved characters whose everyday selfishness and dishonesty were upstaged by a character of astonishing cruelty. In "The Shape of Things," while the two couples have their share of character defects, they seem generally within the norm, until we fully understand what has happened.
In a museum, we see Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) step over a velvet rope to take Polaroids of a male nude statue--or, more specifically, of a fig leaf added at a later date. The museum guard, named Adam (Paul Rudd), asks her to step outside the rope, but eventually steps inside it himself, to plead with her not to cause trouble just before his shift ends. He's a student, working part-time.
They begin to see each other. She's a graduate student, working on a project which she describes, as she describes a great many things, as a "thingy." Eventually we meet an engaged couple, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Fred Weller), who are friends of Adam's. Over a period of months, they notice changes in him. He loses weight. Gets a haircut. Rids himself of a nerdy corduroy jacket that, we learn, Phillip has been urging him to throw away since freshman year. He even has a nose job, which he tries to explain as an accidental injury.
What, or who, is responsible for these changes? Can it be Evelyn, who is now Adam's girlfriend? Adam denies it, although it is not unknown for a woman to make over the new man in her life, and even Jenny observes that most men have traits that stand between them and perfection--traits women are quick to observe and quite willing to change.
The movie unfolds as a series of literate conversations between various combinations of these four articulate people. Their basic subject is each other. They are observant about mannerisms, habits, values and changes, and feel licensed to make suggestions. There is even a little low-key sexual cheating, involving kissing, and low-key emotional assaults, involving telling about the kissing.
And then ... but I will not say one more word, because the rest of the movie is for you to discover. Let it simply be said that there are no free passes in LaBute's class in gender studies.
"The Shape of Things" builds a sense of quiet dread under what seems to be an ordinary surface. Characters talk in a normal way, and we suspect that their blandness disguises buried motives. Often they are quite happy to criticize each other, and none of them takes criticism well. These characters are perhaps in training to become the narcissistic, self-absorbed monsters in "Your Friends and Neighbors."
LaBute has that rarest of attributes, a distinctive voice. You know one of his scenes at once. His dialogue is the dialogue overheard in trendy mid-scale restaurants, with the words peeled back to suggest the venom beneath. He also has a distinctive view of life, in which men and women are natural enemies--and beyond that, every person is an island surrounded by enemies. This seems like a bleak and extreme view, and yet what happens in his films often feels like the logical extension of what happens to us or around us every day. It is the surface normality of the characters and their world that is scary.
LaBute has been compared to David Mamet, and no doubt there was an influence, seen in the devious plots and the precisely heard, evocative language. But Mamet is much more interested in plotting itself, in con games and deceptions, while in LaBute there is the feeling that some kind of deeper human tragedy is being enacted; his character deceive and wound one another not for gain or pleasure, but because that is their nature.
Actors have a thankless task in a film like this. All four players are well cast in roles that ask them to avoid "acting" and simply exist on a realistic, everyday level. Like the actors in a Bresson film, they're used for what they intrinsically represent, rather than for what they can achieve through their art. They are like those all around us, and like us, except that LaBute is suspicious of their hidden motives. One person plays a cruel trick in "The Shape of Things," but we get the uneasy sense that, in LaBute's world, any one of the four could have been that person.
Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.
New York Post
FIT TO BE TIRED
By LOU LUMENICK
May 9, 2003 --
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
** [2 out of 4 stars]
Needs a makeover.
NEIL LaBute is up to his old nasty tricks with "The Shape of Things," an adaptation of his play that, despite an empowered female protagonist, manages in its own way to be as misogynous as "In the Company of Men."
After the relatively benign "Nurse Betty" and "Possession," LaBute revisits the hard-knuckle sexual politics of his early work in this very well-acted - but psychologically superficial - comedy about people's obsession with looks.
The striking Rachel Weisz, who starred in the London stage production and produced the film, plays Evelyn, an art student whom we first see poised to spray-paint a penis on a fig leaf covering a statue of a naked man.
Evelyn fairly terrorizes Adam (a too-old Paul Rudd), the schlubby, overweight undergraduate assigned to guard the statue, though that doesn't dissuade him from asking her for her phone number (which she spray-paints inside his jacket).
But life for Adam and Eve, er, Evelyn is no Garden of Eden.
Evelyn sets about playing Pygmalion to Adam's Galatea for much less than noble motives.
With her encouragement and sexual enticement, Adam loses 27 pounds, gets a decent haircut and clothes - and even (incredibly) has his nose bobbed.
Adam's acerbic roommate, Philip (Frederick Weller), who is planning to marry Jenny (Gretchen Mol) in an underwater ceremony, takes an instant dislike to Evelyn.
Jenny, meanwhile, is fighting a losing battle against her sudden lust for the now hunky Adam, her longtime confidant.
Rudd, Weller and Mol have also played the roles onstage, and their performances cannot be faulted - even if Rudd's ultra-wimpy Adam is awfully hard to take at times.
But there are no other characters in the film, which plays very much like a photographed stage play structured entirely around dialogue, rather than as a movie.
And the climax of "The Shape of Things" - which rather theatrically reveals that a woman can be just as nasty as a man - is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to anybody.
Los Angeles Daily News
** [2 out of 4 stars]
Article Published: Thursday, May 08, 2003 - 7:05:06 AM PST
'Shape' is one-dimensional look at war between sexes
By Glenn Whipp
It has been six years since Neil LaBute threw the hand grenade that was his first film, "In the Company of Men," a brutal look at the battle between the sexes. LaBute immediately followed it up with the equally misanthropic "Your Friends & Neighbors" and then opted for a couple of change-ups, "Nurse Betty" and the unexpectedly romantic "Possession."
Anyone worried that LaBute had gone soft, though, will be comforted to learn that his latest effort, "The Shape of Things," is as bilious and button-pushing as anything he has ever done.
But in a creative sense, LaBute has gone soft because "The Shape of Things" is basically "In the Company of Men" with a dash of "Pygmalion" tossed in. LaBute's impulse to explore whether women can be just as heartless and manipulative in relationships as men is a good one, but the woman at the center of his new film might as well be a man for all the gender specifics he gives her. No, "Shape" is LaBute spinning his wheels, offering another sour candy to his fans, while deluding himself that he's not turning into a one-trick pony, at least when it comes to looking at relationships.
LaBute adapted "The Shape of Things" from his own play with the cast of four intact, which does ensure that the actors know their characters -- simplistic as they are -- inside out. But the well-honed performances seem almost superfluous by the film's end when it becomes clear that LaBute isn't so much interested in them as he is in championing the idea that art -- however cruel -- is necessary and above criticism. Coming from LaBute, it seems more like desperate self-justification than a bold declaration.
Paul Rudd plays Adam, a college nerd who wears his corduroy jacket as a shield from the outside world until he meets the beautiful Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). When Evelyn spray paints her phone number in said jacket, Adam's a goner, willing to do just about anything to please her. Watching with a mixture of disbelief and envy are Adam's friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller), a mismatched couple engaged to be married in an underwater wedding.
"Shape" has 11 scenes in 11 locations with 11 loud Elvis Costello songs punctuating the action. It's virtually the same format as "In the Company of Men," except now LaBute can afford to spend more money for music. LaBute can still make you squirm; watching this movie is watching a car wreck in progress. But he has lost the knack for surprise. And losing that charge makes all the difference.
by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I'm Not Anything
Adam (Paul Rudd) first spots Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) as she steps over the rope around a Renaissance statue. This takes place in the Mercy College museum, where Adam, a rumpled, rules-abiding English undergrad, is working security. Concerned about his job, if not the statue per se, he asks her what she's doing. She pulls out a spray paint can and shakes it. "Truthfully," Evelyn says, "I'm gonna deface the statue." Adam looks stricken. "Is that paint?"
Poor Adam spends much of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things looking like this, behind whatever action is in progress. In this instance, he gathers up his nerve and asks for her number; as neither of them has a pen, she grabs his shabby corduroy jacket and spray-paints her number in it. Adam stands by, not exactly protesting and vaguely giddy in the face of her sexy audacity.
And so, the romantic fiction begins. At first, it seems a bit of standard, and frankly boring, "opposites attract" business: Adam's unkempt hair and corny glasses make him a most unlikely match for Evelyn, an outspoken MFA student, particular about her funky thrift-store look and chopsticks in her hair. Still, she deems him "cute," even as she also declares her aversion to his hair.
If you don't notice this first clue that their romance will not be going quite like other college romances, you'll not miss the next one, in the scene directly following the museum encounter. The new couple, still giddy in each other's presence, are waiting to go see a campus production of Medea (her choice). At this point, you're coming in cold, having seen none of the lead-up to their mutually adoring coupledom: no first date, no decision-making, no transition from museum to Medea. This jump establishes the film's structure (it's based on LaBute's play): it's jittery and episodic, offering only snapshots rather than evolution.
Adam is now, Evelyn notes, looking "fit." Indeed, he's started a jogging regimen. Pleased, she asks what he "wants." He stammers, "Any moment I can get with you, that's what I'd like." Okay, Mr. Silver-tongue, see what you think of this: she kisses him and he panics, sputtering, by way of explanation, "PDA!" (Plainly, this doesn't concern Ms. Spray Paint.) Now Adam frets, wondering how come she won't tell him more about herself. When she demurs from answering questions, he resorts to what has been, pre-Evelyn, a useful self-defense, self-deprecation: "Why do you like me?" he asks. "I'm not anything."
While this is, probably and sadly, true, Evelyn doesn't appreciate whining. And so, she takes this opportunity to put Adam in his place, a place that she defines and circumscribes. She growls and grimaces, chastising his "fucking insecurities," which she reframes as his lack of faith in her judgment. Tables turned, Adam now feels badly for Evelyn. He takes her at her word, never a good idea in a Neil LaBute movie; put another way, as the director tells IFCRant<> magazine (May/June 03), "My work often works on the level of 'everything is not as it seems.'"
Indeed. Adam, however, doesn't know that, and so he bumbles onward, wanting to be what he seems, agreeing to view himself differently, essentially, through her eyes. From here, their relationship turns curiouser, in increments. Adam, apparently already revved up by the jogging, takes action. He starts wearing contacts, changes his hair, trades in his unfashionable corduroy jacket for a preppie windbreaker, even aggress to a nose job, which he explains to friends as the result of a tumble down the stairs.
These friends are introduced at the end of a double date (again, the scene begins and ends without context) with Adam and Evelyn, as Philip (Fred Weller) and his fiancee (and Adam's longtime crush), Jenny (Gretchen Mol). The evening quickly devolves into name-calling between supercilious Philip (who is the less clever, less brutal version of Aaron Eckhart's big meanie in In the Company of Men and definitively intense Evelyn when they begin arguing over distinctions and correlations between art and politics. When she stomps off, Adam has to make a choice.
You'll have to make one too. Or rather, several, as The Shape of Things appears to lay out moral, political, and aesthetic options, embodied by characters but also refused by them (as much as these bits of text might refuse anything). Initially, you might think your choice has to do with identification -- with the progressively pushy Evelyn or the increasingly self-possessed Adam. But your choice is repeatedly shaped and reshaped, as you're faced with the film's manipulations (some unsubtle and others quite cunning), pointed observations, and high contrasts.
This sort of challenge to habits of reading (in particular, assumptions that you know what's happening from scene to scene) is familiar ground for LaBute. His films famously undermine (romantic, comedic, dramatic) conventions even as they appear to offer them up, the ostensibly lush Possession no less than the obviously mordant Your Friends and Neighbors. Such continuity (or revisiting) of themes is not so simple as it might appear, however. Some viewers have called The Shape of Things an inversion of In the Company of Men, in which the girl plays duplicitous abuser. It's true Evelyn schemes more explicitly than Adam (he does scheme, just less proudly). But this reading obscures the details, the ways that duplicity is nuanced. Evelyn and Adam's relationship -- in particular the demands each makes of the other, whether knowingly or in seeming ignorance -- leads to betrayal, pain, and vengeance, the very sort of ugliness that characterizes "normal" relationships as well as those made spectacular in movies or reality tv.
Here, the exercise and interrogation of artifice for which the filmmaker is so well known fold into themselves: Evelyn's art is more overtly calculated than Adam's, but they both play one another, and themselves, hard. Though Adam would argue the point, she is, after all, "truthful," as she first announces herself. She does "deface," and doesn't claim a moral right to do so, only an artistic one. The question is, (how) do these realms diverge?
For Evelyn's Final Thesis Project installation, the wall reads, "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." The line might be read as an indictment of those who attribute moral lessons to art, a number including both LaBute's critics and admirers. And it might also be understood as a more complex, less judgmental, question. How is it that judgment emerges in and as art, in and as relationships, in and as duplicity as much as honesty? How is it that right and righteousness can be claimed, by an individual, much less a culture, or community, or nation? Or, somewhat more simply, can there be a moral bottom line?
This version of LaBute's ongoing project is crisp and aggressive, occasionally alienating or annoying, that is, effectively unlike other movies. That it is, in the end, so difficult to sympathize with any character is disturbing, but also appropriate for a movie more interested in confronting your expectations than cozying up to them.
- 8 May 2003
New York Daily News
Her painting shows mean streaks
By: Jack Matthews
** [2 out of 4 stars]
Homosexuals, ethnic minorities and thin-skinned people of all other persuasions are advised to be on the lookout for Neil LaBute. The misanthropic shock-jock of the multiplex has skewered men, women and couples, and may be looking for fresh meat.
Having taken time out for a black comedy ("Nurse Betty") and a lame literary romantic fantasy ("Possession"), LaBute returns to the icy inhumanity of "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors" with "The Shape of Things," adapted - serrated edges and all - from his Off-Broadway play.
With the same four-member cast performing the same chores, this time in the breezy open air of a coastal college town, LaBute builds once again on the bedrock fallacy that men and women are natural enemies whose strongest members can't help but prey on the weakest, and who revel in the suffering they inflict.
Here, LaBute's predator is a woman, graduate art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), who trusts in the proposition that morality has no place in the gallery. Her prey is Adam (Paul Rudd), a dorky museum guard who can't believe his luck when she gives him a tumble and transforms him from a disheveled lonely guy into a well-groomed almost-cool guy.
When they meet, in the museum where he catches her about to spray-paint the genitals beneath a censoring fig leaf on a Greek statue, she is the answer to every wallflower's dream - pretty, free-spirited and sexually available. Just keep her away from the paint can.
That their names are Adam and Evelyn may be the most transparent touch of biblical irony in the history of film, I rib you not.
Evelyn's makeover of Adam does not go unchallenged. His closest friends, the stock LaBute sociopathic male Neanderthal, Phillip (Fred Weller), and his sugarcoated, hollow-centered girlfriend, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), are mortified by Evelyn's demands on Adam - or, more precisely, by Evelyn taking over their control of him.
Why, it seems that Adam has barely lost his paunch, restyled his hair and traded in his glasses for contacts when she's lined him up for a nose job and eyeing a replacement for his beloved corduroy jacket. What's next? Is she going to make him give up his only friends?
I did not see the play or read a word about it, and despite LaBute's earlier films, the ending to this one took me by unpleasant surprise. To that point, the story was largely compelling. Rudd, a natural-born square, is the perfect candidate for a makeover and Weisz makes it easy to understand his vulnerability to Evelyn.
The argument might be made that LaBute is merely underscoring how people use their power over their lovers to extract concessions that fuel their sense of superiority. But I think LaBute has other devious things on his mind.
Besides repeating his premise that only fools fall in love and deserve whatever circle of hell they enter for it, he seems to really believe that morality has no place in art. Certainly, he's keeping it out of his.
Originally published on May 9, 2003