Art Imitates Love
The Shape of Things
* * * [3 out of 4 stars]
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The first time I saw Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things it packed a wallop. When I saw it again three weeks later it didn't. Its force depends largely on a shock ending that transforms one's sense of the characters, action, and overall theme with the authority of a masterpiece. Without this shock value, the film is still an infernal machine -- designed, like LaBute's In the Company of Men, to goad us into dark reflection -- but its meanings tend to contract rather than expand.
Surprise endings either cancel out the impressions that come before, making the story seem contrived and artificial the second time around, or they enhance and complicate those impressions. The twist at the end of The Shape of Things comes closer to doing the first. The second time I saw it I felt I was watching the demonstration of a theorem more than the unraveling of characters, though it was only after having absorbed the disclosures of a first viewing that I became aware of certain interesting ambiguities.
I haven't had a chance to find out how well Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's The Son, which also depends on a delayed plot disclosure, repays a second visit. I opted not to write about that film at length because I couldn't imagine discussing it seriously without revealing its withheld point. I've decided to write about The Shape of Things despite my having to give away the ending because it's the kind of film that properly starts only after it's ended and therefore demands discussion as a whole, even more than The Son.
LaBute's previous film, Possession, offered two tender love stories, one in the past and one in the present, both framed by a love of literature. The Shape of Things -- initially written as a play during a break in the production of Possession, its dialectical opposite in every respect -- offers one brutal tale about art framed by two interlocking failed-love stories. In Possession literature figured largely as a mode of seduction; in this film art is viewed almost exclusively as an assault. The two lead characters -- there are only four characters in all -- meet in an art museum in the first scene and in an exhibition hall in the last, and both sites are perceived from the outset as arenas for frontal attacks. In the first, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an outspoken and rebellious graduate student in art, is preparing to spray paint the fig leaf a bluenose committee has added to a male nude statue, and Adam (Paul Rudd), a meek undergraduate in English who's working part-time as a museum guard, halfheartedly tries to dissuade her while asking for a date. (The way these two characters dress remains important throughout, presenting us with clues we're asked to read as cliches -- her Mao button and later her Che Guevara T-shirt, his corduroy jacket and the sportier jacket that eventually replaces it -- and helping to shape a contrast with the other two characters.)
In the penultimate scene Evelyn reveals to a college gathering, including Adam and the other two characters, that her affair with Adam has been a cold-blooded work of "human sculpture," undertaken as a thesis project and designed to remold her subject physically and to demonstrate how readily a male can agree to be remolded. In the final scene she meets Adam alone in a nearby exhibition hall where the tools, emblems, and documentation of her project are on display alongside a defiant banner reading "Moralists have no place in an art gallery," a statement ascribed to Han Suyin, a contemporary Chinese-Belgian novelist.
The most vexing thing about the story in between -- set mainly on campus lawns, in two apartments, in the lobby of a theater, and at a Starbucks -- is that it comes across as two intertwining love stories, even though all the participants wind up single at the end, bereft of lovers and friends alike. The second couple, who are engaged when we first meet them, are Adam's best friend and former roommate Philip (Frederick Weller), a self-satisfied jock whose friendship with Adam seems to have a touch of sadism, and the compliant Jenny (Gretchen Mol), whom Adam once had a crush on (furthering the sadism). After Adam spruces himself up and becomes more confident -- he loses weight, stops biting his nails, changes his ward-robe, and replaces his glasses with contacts -- Jenny kisses him impulsively, and he passionately reciprocates. Later, after Jenny confesses this indiscretion to Philip, Philip retaliates by telling Evelyn, who surreptitiously dips into Adam's diary for more evidence, then stages a confrontation with Jenny and Adam that ends with Adam agreeing to give up both Philip and Jenny as friends. Still later, we discover that Philip and Jenny have broken off their engagement, then that Philip has proposed to Evelyn (even more outrageously, she reveals this in an aside during the public presentation of her human sculpture).
If this sounds a bit like farce -- though practically none of it is played for laughs -- it's worth recalling that Restoration comedy was LaBute's avowed inspiration for his first feature five years ago. In fact, The Shape of Things resembles In the Company of Men in many ways, though he's shifted the gender of the predator and substituted art for business.
In the Company of Men concerns two businessmen plotting to break a woman's heart for the sheer "fun" of it. The Shape of Things replaces the ruthless "fun" of business with the ruthless "edification" of art. That LaBute sees himself as something of a businessman artist, insofar as his films are business ventures as well as works of art, suggests he's more than willing to implicate himself in the amoral machinations and ugly truths of his characters. He also wants to implicate us in Adam's willing makeover of himself, challenging and testing us well before Evelyn's revelation to see how much we approve of his actions in the name of love and self-improvement before we choke on the implications. In the final analysis, does love justify a nose job -- which Adam at one point agrees to get -- more or less than art does? Are these two different rationales for the same cruelty? What Adam does out of love for Evelyn comes dangerously close to self-hatred, and what she does to him in the name of art isn't easy to distinguish from malice.
It's to LaBute's credit that he never keeps love and art entirely separate, even when he's pretending to substitute one for the other. A key moment in Evelyn's dispassionate, even icy, public presentation of her art project occurs when she speaks about Adam's betrayal of her by kissing Jenny, and enough emotion creeps into her voice to suggest that she's fighting back tears. She even reveals her suspicion that Adam and Jenny did more than just kiss -- which makes us realize that maybe they did. Just because the scene between Adam and Jenny only shows them kissing doesn't mean they didn't have sex afterward.
This ambiguity is bolstered by a much more obvious ellipsis. In bed together early in their affair, Adam whispers something to Evelyn that we don't hear. She whispers something equally inaudible back, and he grins. In the final scene she admits to him that during their affair everything she said and did was a lie -- she even faked scars on her wrist to help persuade him to get a nose job -- with one exception. She recalls that moment when she whispered to him in bed and says, "I meant that. I did."
All this suggests that LaBute's own piece of conceptual art isn't quite as pure or conceptual as we may first suppose. Nearly every time Evelyn suggests ways Adam can revise his image he hesitates before complying. In that same bedroom scene he tells her, "It may be a touch early to start dictating who my friends are." Similarly, Evelyn's apparent calculations aren't always as dispassionate as she claims; the sound of a woman scorned comes through unmistakably in her public presentation.
The most impressive thing about The Shape of Things is its shapeliness as a performance piece. Film adaptations of plays are usually expected to break free of their stage origins, but the concentration of this one in terms of space and focus is exemplary. Significantly, the sequence that uses the widest visual perspectives is the one in which Adam and Jenny negotiate their attraction to each other: toward the end of the scene we see a vista of cliffs, beach, and ocean behind them -- at precisely the moment when their infidelity to their partners is most likely to grow. And the climactic moment when Evelyn's voice cracks during her presentation -- the other moment of intense ambiguity -- takes place inside a cavernous auditorium.
Because this movie started out as a play with the same cast, all four actors have worked over every facet of their characters so carefully that each gesture and intonation has weight -- nothing is an accident or a throwaway. LaBute has extracted the maximum amount of meaning from his material by letting us approach it from every possible angle, like a piece of sculpture. And this seems entirely appropriate given that the movie begins and ends with a presentation of and then an assault on a piece of sculpture -- the first of which is stone and covered with a fig leaf, the second human and emotionally stripped bare.
Friday, May 9, 2003
Dry dating drama becomes a 'Shape'-shifter
By WILLIAM ARNOLD
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER MOVIE CRITIC
A good three-fourths of Neil LaBute's new film, "The Shape of Things," disguises itself as a fairly prototypical low-budget American indie relationship comedy/drama of the '90s: the kind of film that used to clog film festivals but has since, thankfully, become passe.
The story, which LaBute ("In the Company of Men") adapted from his recent Broadway play, traces the romantic entanglement of Adam (Paul Rudd), a meek college student, and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an aspiring artist he meets one day in the museum where he works as a security guard.
Over the course of several weeks, Evelyn has a big impact on Adam -- persuading him to dress more fashionably, get a more stylish haircut, etc. -- and, in the process, she butts heads with Adam's proprietary best friends, Phillip (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol).
The script consists largely of goofy little scenes in which various groupings of the four characters banter in that nervous, Woody Allen-ish, never particularly funny or endearing or believable dialogue style of the '90s dating movie.
Then ... whammy! LaBute does one of those big "Sixth Sense" last-act turnarounds in which we discover that, for at least one of the characters, nothing is what it seemed, and the movie becomes another of LaBute's famously daring views on the Battle of the Sexes.
The big switch definitely relieves the tedium and forces us to rewind and fast-forward the movie again through our minds, but LaBute really can't make the trick work in any dramatic sense or prevent his movie from playing like a particularly uninspired episode of "Friends."
'Shape' takes form as study of ugly romance
By Joe Baltake -- The Sacramento Bee
Published May 9, 2003
Rating: 3 stars [out of 4]
Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" is a nasty piece of work -- which is no surprise given that LaBute has come to specialize in lacerating observations of the cruel and sexist proclivities of both men and women.
His characters seem to resent their need for each other.
The new movie is essentially a gender-reversed variation on LaBute's compelling debut film, "In the Company of Men" (1997), in which a couple of bored, misogynous corporate types set out to victimize a female co-worker by using the infected strategies they had incorporated into their business dealings. It was an ugly, compulsively watchable film.
"The Shape of Things" is also ugly and almost as watchable, thanks to its attractive cast, especially the edgy Rachel Weisz, who attacks her role as a female cad with the relentlessness of a starving jungle beast tearing apart its prey. Her formidable performance is saturated with rancor.
She plays Evelyn, an applied arts graduate student, and her victim is Adam. (Get it? Adam and Eve-lyn.) They meet in a university museum where she is about to disfigure a Renaissance sculpture of a male nude because of a strategically placed fig leaf.
The leaf was added to the piece by the censors of the day, a decision that Evelyn feels robs it of its honesty. "I don't like art that isn't true," she tells Adam (Paul Rudd), another student, an English major, who is working his way through college as a security guard at the museum. But he stops her before she can paint the missing part on the sculpture.
Since she can't deface the sculpture, Evelyn opts instead to remake Adam, who is slightly overweight, has slightly curly hair, wears glasses and, well, generally resembles LaBute himself. I don't know whether it's accidental or if it's simply in the eyes of the beholder -- my eyes -- but the idea of Adam being LaBute's on-screen alter ego is quite provocative because the character is sweet and gullible but not entirely flattering.
Is this how LaBute sees himself? Is "The Shape of Things" fiction, or something the filmmaker experienced firsthand?
Anyway, a few weeks later, we see some subtle changes in Adam when he and Evelyn, now a couple, get together with his former roommate, the jockish Philip (Fred Weller) and Philip's likable fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), who we learn once had a crush on shy Adam and, in many ways, is his female counterpart.
There is almost an immediate dislike between Evelyn and Philip. She says that she hates "his type," and although Philip doesn't verbalize it, it's clear that Evelyn is the kind of woman who Philip doesn't like. She's too brainy and outspoken, not the least bit malleable and certainly not subservient to men. A guy like Philip is apt to dismiss someone like Evelyn as a lesbian.
You sense these two opposites will have an encounter.
But the film never goes there. Instead, they have a series of confrontations -- the first over the museum statue, which, it turns out, was indeed vandalized. The implication here is that Evelyn talked Adam into being her co-conspirator in the project. Which brings Evelyn and Philip to an even bigger argument -- over Adam and who exactly controls him. Evelyn, who has turned Adam into a personal art project, seems to be winning. You start to wonder if Philip's unwillingness to share Adam with Evelyn has homoerotic roots, but again, the film never goes there.
Much like the character of Evelyn, "The Shape of Things" refuses to do the things that we want it to do. It seems to promise one thing and then does another. It leads us on and, like Evelyn, it's never completely likable.
As the film goes on, Adam is transformed -- losing weight, losing his glasses and dressing better. (Rudd, who is padded at the beginning of the film and, with cotton stuffed in his cheeks, a la Brando in "The Godfather," looks like his usual affable self by the end of it.) He gains more confidence (especially sexually) and, hence, is ready for the kill. I won't say what exactly happens to him, but it's very much on a par with what LaBute pulled off in his companion film, "In the Company of Men." It isn't pretty.
Based on LaBute's recent play (performed both in London and on Broadway), "The Shape of Things" is lucky to have its stage cast re-creating their original roles. Having played these roles for so long and so often, Mol, Rudd, Weller and Weisz fully inhabit their parts. It could have gone in the opposite direction. They could have sounded as if they were reciting dialogue and doing things by rote, but that's not how "The Shape of Things" plays. It feels natural and real, despite the staginess of its one-on-one series of hyper-articulate conversations. No one talks this way in life, and yet it all sounds authentic.
"The Shape of Things" is a punishing film, thanks to Weisz and to a lesser degree Weller, but it also has the warmth generated by the charming Mol and Rudd.
It lulls us, the way Evelyn lulls Adam, before baring its claws.
Spirituality and Health
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
The Shape of Things
Adam (Paul Rudd), a museum security guard, sees Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) breaking the rules by going behind a velvet rope surrounding a large male nude statue to snap some photos of his fig leaf covered penis. Talking to her, he finds out that she is an art student who is very angry that some nervous nellies of old were able to cover the crotch of this sculpture. "I don't like art that isn't true," she says.
The contrast between these two students at a California college is striking. She is pretty and self-confident; he is dorky looking and unsure of himself. She loves stepping over the line and pushing things to see what will happen; he's more of a law-and-order type, believing in rules and regulations and traditional morality. Adam is quite taken by Evelyn and asks her out. She flirts with him and lets him know that she intends to deface the marble sculpture with spray paint. He leaves before she makes her statement of protest.
Once he begins dating Evelyn, Adam experiences some bold transformations. She tries to build up his self-esteem by complimenting him over the positive changes in his appearance -- he loses weight, teases his hair, stops biting his nails, gets contact lenses, and sheds his out-of-style clothes. When they spend an evening out with his former roommate Philip (Frederick Weller) and his fiancee Jenny (Gretchen Mol), the two are stunned by what they see. Adam feels better about himself and is no longer willing to humbly take his friends' withering criticism of him. However, the real battle of the evening takes place between Evelyn and Philip over the vandalism in the art museum. Meanwhile, Jenny feels very close to Adam and shares his embarrassment at the heated argument going on in front of them.
The Shape of Things is based on Neil LaBute's 2001 play. This always controversial filmmaker likes to make us squirm with his no-holds-barred depictions of sexual politics in our time. In the Company of Men revolves around the misogyny of two twisted white-collar executives while Your Friends and Neighbors probed the various ways men and women use words and sex to hurt each other.
We can't go much further in the plot without giving away the secret animating the relationship between Evelyn and Adam. Suffice it to say that LaBute again has zeroed in on one of the most troubling dimensions of relationships between men and women: the inability of some partners to accept their beloved just as he or she is without trying to change the person. How far are people willing to go in adapting to the transformations desired and orchestrated by their partners?
The crucial gap between Evelyn and Adam is that she sees art as the ultimate liberator whereas he believes that morality must always be the final arbiter. Their first big argument occurs when she is enthralled by a woman's art performance and he finds it appalling because she uses blood from her tampon to paint her father's portrait. He's upset but Evelyn immediately smoothes things over by saying that making up after a fight is what makes them so worthwhile. The Shape of Things is a film hard to shake out of your mind. The questions it raises about love, transformation, art, and morality cut to the quick.
By: Cherryl Dawson and Leigh Ann Palone
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
RATING 4 [out of 5]
Adam (Paul Rudd) is a nice guy, but leaves something to be desired when it comes to the ladies. When the lovely art student, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), comes into his life, Adam is surprised and delighted. With Evelyn's help, he begins evolving into a "better" person and his ex-girlfriend Jenny (Gretchen Mol) suddenly finds him rather appealing, especially since her fiance Philip (Frederick Weller) is not as considerate as he could be - actually, he's a bit of a jerk. Adam is flattered by Jenny's attention but has fallen deeply in love with Evelyn. Then the rug gets pulled out from under him and he discovers he knows nothing about women.
This is one of those movies that you don't want to give anything away because knowing the ending changes the movie experience, but there is foreshadowing. Still, it's brilliant the way the story plays out. No matter what you think is coming, the impact of the finale catches you unprepared.
This runs the gamut of relationships: memorable first encounters, brutal fights, tender loving moments, passion, commitment, cheating, spur of the moment tattoos (body art to impress your significant other is almost never a good idea), break-ups, and endings that could lead to the start of something else.
The performances are all superb, especially Paul Rudd. He allows himself to be vulnerable, to really open himself up and it breaks your heart - it also make him very attractive when he shows his soft side (note to our male reader's, men who aren't afraid to cry are hot). One the flip side, Frederick Weller makes a nice contrast - he pulls off adorable even when he's planning an underwater wedding.
The way the movie starts you might be lulled into thinking that writer/director Neil LaBute has given up his dark tales of cruel seductions and vicious manipulators that we found in his earlier work (In The Company Of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) and has turned out a nice little romantic comedy, then all of a sudden, wham. His newest "villain" is calculating, manipulative, and totally heartless when it comes to playing the game. No matter where he takes his characters, LaBute gives them incredibly smart dialog to take into battle - giving them words that paint vivid pictures (like the performance artist working with a special medium that's hard to forget), words that are more painful than daggers, or leaving the words to the audience's imagination (you can't help but wonder what they whisper about in bed). The one thing you can count on is that his characters are going to have interesting relationships.
Boy Hates Girl
The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's latest exercise in misanthropy.
By David Edelstein
Posted Thursday, May 8, 2003, at 3:54 PM PT
Adam and Evelyn contemplate a fig leafIn The Shape of Things (Focus Features), Neil LaBute rehashes the motifs that made his abrasive breakthrough, In the Company of Men (1997), and its even more toxic follow-up, Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), the all-time-champion worst dating movies. This one, based on his own four-character play, isn't as much of a battering ram: For a while, LaBute attempts to seduce you into thinking you're watching a modern--if somewhat stark--screwball comedy. But it isn't long before you start to steel yourself for the inevitable revelation of man's (or woman's) inhumanity to man (or woman). After all, what other reason does a Neil Labute movie have for being?
The Shape of Things has a tidy shape: It's a series of mostly two-character scenes with bits of ominous Elvis Costello songs in between them--their lyrics like curare-dipped projectiles. In the opening, the pudgy, bespectacled Adam (Paul Rudd), a security guard at a college art museum, watches Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a gorgeous, flaky graduate student, prepare to deface a statue with a can of spray paint. The sculptor had been forced to cover the genitalia with a fig leaf, which upsets Evelyn's sense of aesthetic truth: Covering the statue with obscene graffiti is her idea of performance art. Adam tells her to cease and desist but doesn't work too hard to stop her. She might be a twittery weirdo with sociopathic tendencies, but she says he's cute--and this is the closest he has come to a romantic encounter in years.
From the first scene you'll notice that this sounds like a theater piece, with the arch, ping-pong exchanges that pass for human interaction in the world of showoff playwrights. (And Rudd did this part too many times on stage: He can't make his lines sound as if they're coming from his head.) LaBute has also come up with a highly theatrical conceit: In each subsequent scene, Adam is a little leaner, a little handsomer, a little more confident. Evelyn has him dieting, throwing out his dorky old clothes and glasses, even surgically fixing the tip of his nose. As their relationship blooms, he becomes a new man. He even begins to attract Jenny (Gretchen Mol), the straight-laced blond fiancee of his handsome but boorish best friend, Philip (Frederick Weller).
Is LaBute really making a movie about an uptight nerd who's charmingly opened up by a free spirit? No, it can't be--there has to be some higher malevolence. Either the newly empowered Adam is going to run roughshod over the clutchy Evelyn (perhaps by taking up with Jennifer), or the enigmatic Evelyn has some ulterior motive for seducing Adam. One clue to the movie's moral universe is the names Adam and Evelyn; another is a couple of Hedda Gabler references. The hints are all there, but nothing can quite prepare you for the melodramatic outlandishness of the last two scenes.
As Evelyn, Weisz (who co-produced the movie) is intense enough to make me wonder what she could do with Hedda, one of the most complex monsters ever written for the stage. It's worth lingering on Ibsen's heroine: The imperious daughter of an aristocratic general, Hedda is both a titanic egotist and a victim of her era's subjugation of women--a "perfect storm" antagonist. Evelyn, by contrast, is the essence of motiveless malignity, spouting ideas about art and morality that might strike the Marquis de Sade as a tad over the top. LaBute's climactic insight about "the shape of things" is supposed to be blinding in its candor, but it sounded weirdly off the subject to me. The real story here is LaBute's peculiar inner world.
In LaBute's movies, people are either clueless dupes or psychotic manipulators, while art is meant to rub your face in unpleasant "truths." And I think he takes a little too much pleasure in that nose-rubbing, which might be why some critics (and a lot of women I know) called him a "misogynist" for In the Company of Men--ostensibly an attack on misogyny: It was like watching a puppy tortured for 90 minutes. The Shape of Things is more straightforward in its fear of women--and in its belief that opening oneself up to anyone is a sure recipe for getting clobbered.
LaBute often cites the Mike Nichols/Jules Feiffer movie Carnal Knowledge (1971)--in which a loutish Jack Nicholson attempts to teach Art Gurfunkel how to exploit a series of mostly dull-witted women--as a seminal influence. I can imagine him seeing it at an impressionable age and exclaiming, "That's it! That's what great art can do: show us the ugly truth about human relationships!" I can't help wondering, though, if this revelation had been preceded by any, um, hands-on experience. It seems more likely that LaBute spent a lot of time alone in his college dorm room listening to Elvis Costello sing things like, "He said, 'I'm so happy I could die'/ She said 'drop dead' then left with another guy!" and going, "Yeah! That's what women are made of!" I'd say he needs to meet a nice girl--but I'm not sure any nice girls need to meet him.
May 9, 2003, 11:52AM
Director returns to form with 'Shape'
By ERIC HARRISON
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
When we first see Evelyn in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, she's eying a museum statue while pulling out a can of paint. She knows no bounds. She's lovely and wild. And she's about to wreak havoc in the life of poor Adam, a nerdy security guard.
They are students at the fictional Mercy College, but because the writer-director was responsible for In the Company of Men we know to expect no mercy. His characters can be brutal.
Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and Adam (Paul Rudd) met before at a video store. Evelyn remembers. Adam doesn't, until she says he helped her find The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The dark-haired beauty slipped his mind, but Adam remembers the film was filed under "drama" instead of in its rightful place in "classics."
A wild artist (Rachel Weisz, left) upsets the lives of a mild-mannered security guard (Paul Rudd) and his friend (Gretchen Mol) in The Shape of Things. These people don't belong together. What could she possibly see in him? Yet soon after they become a couple, a different Adam starts to emerge. Evelyn has a tremendous transformative effect on him.
Adam's friends, Jenny and Philip, don't know what to make of Evelyn, an art student drawn to shocking feminist work. They're conservative, conventional thinkers. And Phillip is the kind of smug jock you just know will grow up to become the Angry White Male character in In the Company of Men. He and Evelyn instinctively hate each other.
For the first half of the movie, you think you know where it's going. The fireworks between Evelyn and Phillip must mean something. And Adam and Jenny are both gentle, naive souls who would've dated long ago if Adam hadn't been so shy.
But a mere partner swap would be far too prosaic a development for LaBute to hang a plot on. He's got something else in mind. When it occurs, The Shape of Things catapults into the ranks of LaBute's first two caustic comedies, Company and 1998's Your Friends & Neighbors.
When LaBute burst onto the scene in 1997, a lot of people didn't know what to make of him or his first movie. Company was seen by some as a simplistic tale with a feminist message. It made people of both sexes uncomfortable. Such unprovoked cruelty had rarely been seen on screen. What depths of misogyny and rage had he tapped to create such characters? Did he really think people were this sick?
Your Friends & Neighbors suggested he did. It used a larger canvas to make a less reductive point, but the cruelty and misogyny remained. This time the centerpiece was a long, disturbing monologue about the sublime joy of committing homosexual rape.
The two movies established LaBute -- a Mormon whose student plays about gender conflict and homophobia scandalized Brigham Young University in the 1980s -- as a distinctive talent. He draws on restoration comedy for his themes and structures, and his dialogue -- especially in the early work -- shows the influence of David Mamet. But LaBute was forging his own path.
After detouring to direct plays and movies based on other writers' work (Nurse Betty, Possession), LaBute returns to form. Like the first two films, The Shape of Things feels like a play. It began its life on stage. The same four actors performed it in London and New York for nine months before they began shooting the movie.
The new film feels like a companion piece to Company. Both men and women do and say hurtful things, but the act of unbelievable cruelty that shapes the plot is performed by a woman.
Sickening, hateful, perverse -- the adjectives people used to describe his first two movies apply here. Thought-provoking and funny also are fitting terms.
LaBute has been accused of injecting cruelty for shock value, but there is an element of truth in his work. After one of his movies, you inevitably find yourself looking at your own relationships differently. His characters are grossly exaggerated examples of people we all know.
You walk out feeling and thinking differently than when you walked in. Isn't that what art is supposed to do?
'The Shape of Things': Trouble in a Modern Eden
By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 9, 2003; Page C05
Neil LaBute may be the theater's most savage lepidopterist. Treating his characters as so many butterflies, he stalks and nets them with ruthless wit and cunning. He displays his quarry in his plays -- sharp-edged exhibits of human venality and spiritual blight.
Although LaBute is primarily a playwright, he first came to the public's attention with his 1997 movie "In the Company of Men," a breathtaking portrait of misogyny, avarice and cruelty. As appalling as the film was, it was a brilliant creation, giving no quarter to LaBute's fellow men, unsparing in its depiction of late corporate capitalist nihilism. "Your Friends and Neighbors" was a variation on the same themes, and then LaBute threw a curveball with "Nurse Betty," which was surprisingly bland and slack-paced.
LaBute is back in form with "The Shape of Things," in which the writer-director once again puts his cardinal themes of sex, power and original sin under the glass. The gender roles have been somewhat reversed -- here LaBute's concern isn't man's inhumanity to man as much as woman's -- but his basic point is the same: The human race is a hopelessly flawed lot, prone to wickedness and self-deception. Redemption is but a comforting fiction.
"You stepped over the line." That's the first thing Adam (Paul Rudd) says to Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and it will prove to be prophetic. Evelyn, an art student at the fictional Mercy College, has invaded the comfort zone of a sculpture in the campus museum, where Adam, also a student at the college, is a guard. She is preparing to vandalize the statue -- specifically, to paint a penis where a plaster fig leaf was grafted on during a more puritanical time (or maybe it was just last week).
Adam and Evelyn proceed to engage in the brittle Socratic badinage and clever wordplay for which LaBute has earned a deservedly glowing reputation. Although the audience doesn't witness Evelyn's act of protest, we see her impulsively paint her phone number on the inside of Adam's jacket. "The Shape of Things" follows the couple through their tumultuous courtship, which is kept at a consistently high pitch by the spiky, mercurial Evelyn. Gradually but unmistakably, she begins to chip away at Adam -- a shambling, rumpled nerd -- and eventually she succeeds in bringing out the cute guy lurking underneath.
Adam's transformation comes as a surprise to his friends Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and her fiance, Philip (Frederick Weller). As Adam and Evelyn's love affair progresses, the quartet will be affected in unexpected ways, some more seriously than others, all irrevocably. Again, true to form, LaBute keeps viewers guessing right up until the film's finale, one that qualifies as a definite whopper.
Readers who have already surmised that "The Shape of Things" is a biblical allegory are right, sort of. LaBute, who adapted the film from his play, has taken care to place his modern-day Adam and Eve in a variety of Edenic settings, from the verdant paradise of the Mercy campus to interior spaces whose walls are covered with floral wallpaper and images of trees. And in constantly challenging Adam's notions of privacy and propriety, Evelyn offers him what today might pass for the apple of knowledge. She vandalizes the sculpture in the spirit of artistic and intellectual honesty; she videotapes their sexual liaisons for the same reason. Or so she claims -- fans of LaBute know better than to take any of his characters fully at their word. Packing a dizzying array of motives and tensions into his careful, densely layered round robin, LaBute orchestrates "The Shape of Things" like a suspense thriller, full of hidden agendas and emotional switchbacks.
LaBute has assembled the same actors who originated the roles in the New York production of the play, and all acquit themselves well, even if they still seem to be declaiming toward the cheap seats. Rudd, who has also appeared in the LaBute play "Bash," makes a convincing Eliza Doolittle to Evelyn's 'Enry 'Iggins (as Adam calls her). He tosses off Adam's pop-culture references and self-conscious asides with the aplomb of a lifelong misfit. With the help of prosthetics, but mostly through his body language, he makes a convincing schlump whose rebirth is entirely believable. But the real standout here is Mol, who until now was best known simply for appearing on a Vanity Fair cover a few years ago. As the confused victim of Evelyn's wiles, not to mention her own fiance's unacknowledged attraction to Adam, Mol delivers a terrific performance: Her Jenny is innocent but not entirely naive.
From its cast to its production design, right down to the Elvis Costello songs that blare out between chapters, "The Shape of Things" seems every much as finely calibrated as "In the Company of Men." Then LaBute delivers a surprise ending that pulls a big rug out from under the audience: What you thought was happening wasn't really happening; all of those carefully placed biblical references lose their relevance and nothing quite adds up. To make his climax work, LaBute must make much of an inconsequential act; the blowup that follows seems completely disproportionate. That, in turn, weakens the film's final moral point, which comes off as simplistic, inflated rhetoric. Viewers might be forgiven for feeling considerably let down, especially after being asked to invest and engage in such a rigorous intellectual exercise. They might also feel that this time, they're the creatures who have been impaled by LaBute's merciless pin.
Theatrical 'Things' Not Quite Suited to Screen
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2003; Page WE49
Writer-director Neil LaBute, who made "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty," is a sharp satirist who isn't afraid to show the inherent cruelty and the shady truths of modern life. This movie, which was originally a LaBute play featuring the same four actors, is another semi-Theater of Cruelty piece. But this one's not entirely successful.
Adam (Paul Rudd), a museum guard, meets Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), who's standing before a classically sculpted male nude. Her intentions, he discovers, are radical. She intends to deface the statue in protest. The figure, she gradually tells him, offends her sensibilities for its conventional falseness. She wants to spray paint a penis over the very fig leaf that's supposed to hide such nudity.
The movie, still very playlike, amounts to a battle of wills between Adam and Evelyn (the name fig-leafed to hide "Eve," of course). Why does Evelyn apparently become attracted to Adam and force him to trim down, agree to cosmetic surgery and become estranged from his friends Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phil (Frederick Weller)? Adam refuses to see the light, which sets him up for what can only be described as a LaBute ending. At best, the movie is a problematic chamber piece; at worst, a misdirected, slightly misanthropic pretension.
The Shape of Things
** 1/2 [2.5 out of 4 stars]
Release Date: May 9, 2003
GLENN KENNY'S REVIEW (posted 5/7/03)
In the final scene of this picture, a betrayed character confronts his/her betrayer, whose lair is an art gallery. "Moralists have no place in an art gallery: is written partially in genteel white letters, right on the red wall of the art gallery, in a quote attributed to one Han Suyin. The confrontation between Betrayed and Betrayer is in large part about morals and moralism, their relations to aesthetics, and so on. But that quote, which Betrayed must walk past to get to Betrayer, can be likened to "Beware of Dog," if not "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." It's the rock upon which Betrayer has built a church of sorts.
The quote is mentioned, though, in the stage version of The Shape of Things, which its playwright, Neil LaBute, has brought to film in a largely unadapted version, as it were. Perhaps the writer-director feels that movie goers need more prodding than theater audiences. Or maybe he just wanted to present something interesting in red and white. The effect is perhaps a little too striking--something that could be said for the film as a whole.
In Shape, the pudgy, socially inept Adam (Paul Rudd) meets feisty, iconoclastic art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) as she's about to deface an already censored sculpture in the museum where he's a security guard. They begin dating, and soon a makeover begins--Adam begins losing weight, dressing better, even gets a nose job. His blowhard former roomie Phillip (Frederick Weller) and Phillip's fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), find these changes interesting, and Evelyn intriguing. For a time, at least. Things get tense when Phillip engages Evelyn in an almost immediately hostile is-X-art-or-is-X-smut debate; similarly, Adam and Evelyn experience a rift after she drags him to see a performance piece by a woman who paints with her own menstrual blood. Adam's against it, Evelyn's for it. (In any case, LaBute's a bit behind the zeitgeist here. Hadn't everybody figured out that the obliquely referenced Karen Finley was a joke even before she posed for Playboy?) And if by this time you don't see where all this is going, well, then good for you--you'll probably enjoy this film a lot more than I did.
The Shape of Things strikes me as more of a thesis piece than anything LaBute has put his name to thus far. Its characters don't seem to be people as much as they are stand-ins for ideas. That a weedy introvert like Adam (whose social ineptitude does not, as it happens, mask anything resembling a giant intellect) could be best friends with a reactionary jock swaggerer like Phillip is not necessarily improbable in and of itself, but LaBute doesn't bother to give their friendship any dimension, any reason to exist. These noncharacters are just there to enact a set of propositions and conundrums. As such, Adam, Evelyn, Jenny, and Phillip are enslaved by their creator, who refuses to give any of his leads but one (and even that's a stretch) as much as a lick of common sense.
Incidentally, the Han Suyin who LaBute cites (some might say snidely) is not, as you might have had reason to expect, a performance artist who paints with her own menstrual blood. She is, rather, a Chinese physician and author, best know here for the semi autobiographical novel that was the basis for the 1955 film Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
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PREVIEW (posted 4/11/03)
Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) takes a scenario usually found in '80s teen flicks--the makeover of a nerd--and turns it on its ear. Starring Paul Rudd as a geeky college kid and Rachel Weisz as the beautiful art student who disturbingly molds him into someone new.
The Bottom Line: Not exactly a date movie. (Focus Features)
San Francisco Chronicle
Tricks trump treats
'Shape of Things' suffers from a forced, artificial tone
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
Friday, May 9, 2003
Grade: [3 out of 4]
The Shape of Things: Comedy-drama. Starring Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller. Directed by Neil LaBute. (R. 97 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
"The Shape of Things" is the latest of writer-director Neil LaBute's explorations into the heartlessness of humanity, the cruelty of love and the nerdiness of virtue. Like "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," "The Shape of Things" is a kind of modern-day version of a Restoration play, full of tricks and deceits and moral snares.
Even more than "In the Company of Men," it's the most playlike of his films, with long scenes that have formal beginnings and endings and take place in a single location. Indeed, "The Shape of Things" started life as a stage play, and it's refreshing to encounter something this literate in a movie theater. The film is certainly clever enough to hold an audience's interest throughout, though in the end it's a victim of its own ambition. As a moral investigation, it's shallow and ultimately ludicrous.
That LaBute used the same cast for the film that he used for his London and New York productions is a mark of his integrity. Set in California college town, the picture stars Paul Rudd as Adam, an overweight, badly dressed and extremely diffident fellow who meets a beautiful art student, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), in a museum. He's a part-time security guard, and she has a can of spray paint. She wants to paint genitals onto a plaster fig leaf that was put over the private parts of a God statue centuries ago.
OK, let's figure this out. He's Adam. She's Eve(lyn). In Genesis, Adam and Eve started wearing fig leaves after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Here, she doesn't like fig leaves. Why not? Because she thinks a fig leaf is a form of lying. OK, so, let's see. Evelyn has Eve's after-the-fall knowledge and Eve's pre-fall predilections. What does it all mean? It probably means this is LaBute's movie, and he has a right to have fun.
Evelyn decides she likes Adam, a mystery to anyone watching, since, unlike in the Garden of Eden, this woman has more than one guy to choose from. They start seeing each other, and as their relationship progresses, she sets about improving his looks. She makes him dress better. She has him lose weight and get contact lenses. And the physical alterations don't end there.
The dialogue in "The Shape of Things" has LaBute's signature style. It's artificial and exaggerated -- not in the Mamet-like way of being an amplification of real life but in a way that's remote from life, that's a world unto itself. To my eyes, LaBute's vision is reductive and false at its core, relying on the same stock types from film to film. For example, Rudd's manner at the start of "The Shape of Things" is almost identical to that of Ben Stiller in "Your Friends and Neighbors": The diffident, ducklike walk, the excessive smiling and the grotesque tendency to speak in a funny voice whenever he's about to say something slightly daring.
Still, LaBute is an amusing writer, and as "The Shape of Things" is the least portentous of his scripts, it's the most successful. Adam takes Evelyn to meet his friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller), and the first social encounter ends in disaster, with Philip and Evelyn getting into an argument about the nature of art, while Jenny, who just wants to get along, and Adam, the embodiment of male cowardice, sit mutely and watch. Philip is another stock LaBute type, the cocky alpha male, sadistic and close- minded. Weller plays him with a nice cartoonlike brio that's right on the edge of satire.
This "four-hander," as they call it in the theater, plays out in a series of mostly two-person scenes, over the course of a semester, most of them involving Adam, the central character. Weisz is enigmatic, either a wise woman or a power-mad Svengali. Mol is both sweet and interesting, not the easiest combination. It's Rudd's character that experiences the greatest transformation, but in the end it's not nearly great enough -- either physically or spiritually -- to support the points LaBute wants to make.
LaBute intends that "The Shape of Things" should ultimately be a commentary on the ways in which the world's obsession with appearances has a pernicious effect on human character. The movie is really about LaBute's own delight in trickery -- his characters' and his own. . This film contains strong language and sexual situations.
The San Francisco Examiner
Publication date: 05/07/2003
Out of 'Shape'
BY JEFFREY M. ANDERSON
Of The Examiner Staff
** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
Neil LaBute shocked a small part of the world with his extraordinary 1997 debut "In the Company of Men," a brilliant and twisted exploration of competition between men to see who can go the furthest in manipulating a deaf female co-worker.
LaBute mellowed out a bit with subsequent films, but with "The Shape of Things," he returns to that fertile ground a little older, a little wiser.
Based on his play, which ran in New York and London in 2001, "The Shape of Things" reunites the same cast from the stage version. In the first scene, the frumpy, dumpy Adam (Paul Rudd) runs into sexy, arty oddball Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) at his museum job. She climbs over the ropes to get closer to a sculpture of a naked male figure, whose genitals have been covered by a leaf. He tries to stop her, they talk, and they hook up.
Adam takes his new girlfriend to meet his former roommate Phillip (Fred Weller) and Phillip's fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol). The attractive, blond Jenny once had a thing for Adam, but he was too shy to act on it. Unfortunately, the crass Phillip -- who always wears his sunglasses on his head -- clashes with Evelyn, and the awkwardness begins.
Things get even stranger when Adam's appearance begins improving. He loses weight, begins dressing well and even gets a nose job. With a little more confidence, Adam begins to notice things heating up between he and Jenny again. And all hell breaks loose.
Sadly, "The Shape of Things" plays an awful lot like "In the Company of Men" and where it doesn't, it's not as good. Yet, unlike the earlier film, LaBute keeps the most savage element of the story as a surprise for the ending, and I can't discuss the rest without divulging that twist.
Still, LaBute is too talented not to present something at least interesting, and the balanced struggle between and among sexes is engaging for a good chunk of the film. Each actor does great things in small moments -- Weisz with her strange little pauses in dialogue, Weller looking like he's having a hard time thinking -- and LaBute's dialogue rises to meet their talents.
In addition, the director constantly hints at something going on -- a performance of "Medea," a picture of a gun pointing at Phillip's head -- and he keeps us off balance and guessing.
It's just that LaBute might have been better off throwing all his cards on the table and dealing with them up front. When everything is finally revealed, it's hard not to wrestle with a profound sense of disappointment.
THE WRONG 'SHAPE' FOR FILM
By: Rob Blackwelder
"THE SHAPE OF THINGS"
EXCERPT FROM REVIEW:
Provocative to be sure, "The Shape of Things" makes an interesting contrast to LaBute's controversial portrait of misogyny, "In the Company of Men." But it simply feels shackled to its previous incarnation. It doesn't breath like a movie or have the elasticity of a movie. It's confined and restricted by its narrow focus on just the interactions of this foursome without them interacting with anything or anyone else.
[650+ word review. The full review can be read on the SPLICEDWire website at:
By: Laura Clifford
'Moralists have no place in an art gallery.'
Writer/director Neil Labute returns to his nasty habits after a foray into romance ("Possession") with this female counterpart to his breakthrough film, "In the Company of Men," but his return to his roots feels like a retread. There are no surprises to be had in "The Shape of Things," which telegraphs its twist ending in its first ten minutes.
Once Adam's surprised himself by successfully getting Evelyn out on a date (she spray paints her number on the lining of his beloved corduroy jacket), his next impulse is to show her off to his best friend Philip (Frederick Weller, "The Business of Strangers") and his fiancee Jenny (Gretchen Mol, "Rounders"). They're amazed at her unconventionality and Philip's sudden weight loss and hipper hairstyle. Philip makes it known that he won Jenny over Adam, who was too timid to act, in a macho counterstrike which makes Adam and Jenny uncomfortable but merely interests Evelyn. When conversation turns to the recent vandalism at the museum, though, the evening turns disastrous with Evelyn stomping out after a heated exchange with Philip.
Evelyn's influence continues to be displayed in Adam as his glasses are replaced by contacts and his wardrobe becomes stylish. Philip is aghast but Jenny, who is clearly more suited to Adam, is attracted. Evelyn forces a confrontation which shatters the group dynamic, then reassembles them for her surprising graduate art thesis exhibit.
Labute could be commenting upon his own work with his central theme of cruelty excused by the production of art, but his argument here is unconvincing because there is no evidence of art in his penultimate scene. Labute hasn't rid his film adaptation of his Broadway play of its staginess, particularly in his failure to reign in Rudd's playing to the rafters. Evelyn's dialogue drips more symbolic portent than naturalism and the film's forward jumps in time feel like breaks between acts. Sets and exterior locations are claustrophobic and cinematography (James L. Carter, "Tuck Everlasting") follows suit. The dandy soundtrack consists of nicely chosen Elvis Costello songs, whose lyrics are stronger than the action they comment upon.
Paul Rudd's Adam is a sweet character but he blunts his believability by ladling on the actorly ticks too heavily. Weisz, whose Evelyn is at turns confrontational and condescendingly disingenuous ('A Cosmo test? Now you're getting scientific on me.'), is more a device than a character, a sociopathic artist the writer invests with an understanding of human nature. Better are Gretchen Mol, the actress who never became the 'It girl' a Vanity Fair cover article pronounced, and Frederick Weller, both reprising their roles from the play (as are Weisz and Rudd). Mol brings a simple sweetness to Jenny while Weller does a pitch perfect turn on the snide frat boy who likes his friends better unequal to his own cool.
Labute gives us an intriguing moment in the movie's final moments. Adam confronts Evelyn in a manner directly opposite that of the opening scene and Evelyn relents slightly, giving Adam the gift of the truth of something she once whispered to him. But what does this mean? The possibility is interesting, but in the end it's a bluff.
Review of The Shape of Things
Neil LaBute's wordy, vitriolic examination of love and dating.
May 09, 2003 - Neil LaBute's latest film has already been referred to as In the Company of Women and with fairly appropriate reason. LaBute, who is first and foremost a playwright, has made a name for himself writing vitriolic examinations of human relationships. In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and now with The Shape of Things, LaBute takes to skewering the way people look at romantic interaction between the sexes.
On the surface, The Shape of Things is an innocent examination of a collegiate love triangle of sorts. The film focuses on the nebbish Adam (Paul Rudd), a disheveled geek who bumps into the subdued, yet brash Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) at the museum where he is a docent. They quickly enter the ritual of dating and the inevitable chore of introducing themselves as a couple to their friends. In this case, the friends are Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller) and the couples enter into a tenuous relationship that eventually devolves into rumormongering, backstabbing, and soap operatic intentions.
The Shape of Things was initially written for the stage and the four central actors -- Weisz, Rudd, Mol, and Weller -- actually performed the play both in London and on Broadway before reprising their roles before the camera. While many of LaBute's previous films, specifically those he has both written and directed, have had an air of the theater about them, none of them have felt as much like a play as The Shape of Things. A large part of this comes from the way the actors handle themselves on film. Both Rudd and Weller tend to overact more often than not, which is fine for the theater where vocal intonations and physical gestures need to be exaggerated in order to convey emotion and action into the far reaches of the theater. But film requires more subtlety. Rudd's portrait of Adam verges on the satirical, coming off at times like a reinterpretation of Ben Stiller's Ted Stroehmann character from There's Something About Mary. Weller, for his part, takes snide cocksureness to the furthest limits of the extreme.
While the men leaned toward over acting, the two women were almost understated to the other end of the spectrum. Both Weisz and Mol deliver performances dripping in subtle nuance, but when placed next to Rudd and Weller, they almost get lost in the shuffle. It's a testament to both women's thespian chops that they don't, instead drawing us into their diverse characters: the opinionated and spontaneous seeming Evelyn and the more submitting Jenny. Weisz's character is an enigma, and she plays the part to wonderful aplomb. As for Mol, her character is a lost soul, a sheltered butterfly not knowing if and when to spread her wings, and she plays the part accordingly.
As with any solid playwright, LaBute's strong point is in his attention to dialogue. On this front The Shape of Things scores valiantly, as each character is given more than their fair share of words to sling. In fact, more often than not it's the words that become the real star in the film, as the characters each unleash dizzying arrays of barbs, stabs, insights, and emotion.
In the end, The Shape of Things falls toward the bottom end of LaBute's cinematic pantheon, mostly because as a film it feels way too much like a play. In fact, when it was over I truly wished that I had been privileged enough to have seen it in its original incarnation on the stage. Still, those looking for an interesting take on modern dating and the subjective nature of love will find that The Shape of Things provides a wordy, often vitriolic examination of said themes.
-- Spence D.
Rating: *** [3 out of 5 stars]
By: James E. Laczkowski
There's a moment towards the end of Neil LaBute's flawless new film, "The Shape Of Things" where I thought I was going to start balling my eyes out. This isn't necessarily a sad film, but it has moments where it infects you and tears you up. Yes, it's darkly humorous, and even strangely endearing (particularly towards Paul Rudd's character) but as much as it employs the emotions, it opens the mind to a perspective that is worth hearing, analyzing, and conversing over. And it's one of the year's very best films.
It all starts inside a museum where we see Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) step over a velvet rope in order to take Polaroids of a male nude statue. 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. Of course we know there is subtle flirting at hand amidst the trademark rhythmic, didactic dialogue that LaBute is known for. So within a moment's notice and a quick cut-away later, Evelyn and Adam begin to see each other. She's a graduate student, working on a project, which she describes as she does a great many things, as a kind of "thingy." Eventually we meet another 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. He fixes his hair. He gets a nose job. Adam then rids himself of a nerdy corduroy jacket that, we learn, Phillip has been trying to persuade him to throw the jacket since freshman year.
Could it be that Evelyn is attempting to pull off some understated manipulations in order to change Adam for the better? Are her intentions sincere in order to make him "better?" Adam denies it's Evelyn's influence, although it is not unknown for a woman to make over the new man in her life to fit a certain ideal that she possesses. Even Jenny observes that most men have traits that stand between them and being perfect. "If only he didn't do this... or that... then he'd be perfect." Doesn't anybody believe in the "nobody's perfect" mentality anymore?
This all leads to the earth-shattering conclusion, which nobody in his or her right mind should give away. It's the kind of moment that leads to pure shock, dismay, even horror and sorrow. It's the kind of instance that a lot of movies try to get away with, and it stretches plausibility or negates everything that came before it (especially in horror films). But "The Shape Of Things" was leading up to it, without giving it away, and it's quite simply one of the most profoundly disturbing "twists" I have ever witnessed in a film. The palette of feelings I went through during this sequence was vast and never-ending. Long after the closing credits, I couldn't get what was said (and done) out of my system. All I kept thinking was "this is such an important piece of filmmaking" that to deny its existence or skip it out of disinterest would be like not reading Beckett or Chekhov at least once in your lifetime. It's easily Neil LaBute's best film since "In The Company Of Men" for some of the same reasons I thought "Men" was so intense and vital.
There is no universal value system that applies to every single individual in LaBute's world. That value system is considered a mirage mirrored by social conventions. It's only what we want to adhere to as human beings. He asks many questions instead of providing easy answers for his audience. What is considered art? Is it something that you've created? Have the expectations of relationships turned us into robots? Why are we so preoccupied with what's on the surface of people? Do we strive for aesthetic perfection because it's more accepted by the mainstream? Are we slaves to the exterior because magazines and the media dictates what's beautiful and what's not? Is romantic idealism... dead?
Neil LaBute is a confrontational filmmaker that manages to defy its audience and force them into conversation. Think of his latest "The Shape Of Things" as the third in a series of films that faces the battle of the sexes in such a callous, yet honest fashion that is disheartening and invigorating at the same time. Neil LaBute takes a scenario usually found in '80s teen flicks -- the makeover of a nerd -- and turns it on its ear. By creating his own vision with a touch of Mamet class, punctured by Elvis Costello tunes, LaBute examines male and female stereotypes until they're turned upside around. His outlook can be deemed cynical or nihilistic, but it's realistic in its philosophy. I wouldn't say the conversations as insanely rhythmic and wordy as they tend to be, are realistic, but the outcome or the overall perception of how our world is, and how dehumanized we've become... is. It's hard to watch, and it angers people to have their values challenged or looked at from a different interpretation, but it's vital, intense, and riveting all without being cliche or unnecessary. Basically it's as if LaBute re-wrote "Pygmalion" combined with a big middle finger to his critics who despised "In The Company Of Men", stating, "see... women can be JUST as evil as men!"
"The Shape Of Things" messed me up in ways that very few films do because it allowed me to feel a variety of emotions all within a span of 90 minutes. It made me think about my view of things and how hurtful we can be, but it also gave me a change to re-examine my take on relationships, and how subjective love is. People need to see this movie. It may be an ugly piece of work but it will either hit you the right way and make you assess what we all do as people who love and desire others... or it will just piss you off about how f***ed up we all are. For me, it did both, and Neil LaBute has hit another home run. It's his best film since "In The Company Of Men." With this film and "All The Real Girls," it's shaping up to be a great year with realistic portrayals of relationships.
It also takes real gusto on the part of the performers to dive in head on into the material. Rachel Weisz was never one of my favorites, but lately, I've become quite fond of her, and although her character actions are meant to be questionable, I bought every bat of her eyelash in what's easily her best performance yet. But in my opinion, this film is a calling card to all directors to cast Paul Rudd in anything that they can. He's been doing consistently great work in everything I've seen him in, and this is his tour de force. Here's a guy who I dug in "Clueless." (In fact, I predicted great things for him, Jeremy Sisto, and Britney Murphy completely diverting my attention to them in that movie, rather than Alicia Silverstone). Paul Rudd is given a lot to accomplish here and does so by asking a lot of its audience in the short running time of the film, to buy his transformation. A lot of naysayers are already saying that the characters are not three-dimensional to really feel connected to or to have sympathy for. False. Wrong. Incorrect. Rudd is my new hero after this movie because not only did I adore his character, but I despised him, and eventually nearly cried for. He is absolutely impeccable in the role, and will definitely go down on my ballot for Best Actor come awards time next year.
LaBute doesn't candy coat love or affection in black and white. He forces us to reassess what makes us who we are and what gives us grace and substance. There really are no stereotypical bad guys/good guys (or women for that matter), but rather fallible, damaged, and conflicted human beings attempting to feel allied to people in this world whether through art, sex, love, or all of the above. His world is ugly, but imperative to examine. LaBute is a fearless filmmaker... audacious, and sharp, without ever being pretentious. His movies aren't necessarily cinematic or have amazing camerawork, like the early work of Kevin Smith, but rather theatrical in nature, more focused on dialogue and character gradation than action. I liked his nice touches at the end, and the little allusions that might be considered toss-aways to some. He knows how to bring the best out of his actors (or the worst) and makes every thing seem grounded in reality by the ideas presented in all of his movies.
Some might deem him preachy with his latest or even repetitive, and while this is simply an offspring of his first, and best film, "In The Company Of Men," this is still simply one of the best pieces of screenwriting that you will find this year. It doesn't get much better than this.
Early in his film career, the fiendishly gifted writer-director Neil LaBute seemed excessively in the thrall of the fiendish part of his talent, at the expense of a full exploitation of his gifts. His first two films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," were so drunk on bile that you imagined their creator to be some misanthropic mite.
But in his follow-up, "Nurse Betty" -- tellingly the first film he directed but didn't write -- LaBute showed a more human face while not softening the edge of his technique. His next film, an adaptation of the A.S. Byatt novel "Possession," made it clear that LaBute's initial nasty vibe was perhaps more a means of making a name than an essential characteristic of his world view.
Now LaBute returns to his own material with "The Shape of Things," based on his stage play, a sharp, witty and surprising film of cutting insights and cool-eyed cynicism that shares with his early works a jaded view of the relations between men and women but comports itself with an easygoing confidence those other films lacked. The movie isn't uniformly taut, but it's funny, acid and clever, the work of a fine craftsman working in a comfortable metier.
Rachel Weisz ("About a Boy") plays Evelyn, a strong-willed art student who makes the acquaintance of the nebbishy Adam (Paul Rudd) while preparing to deface a sculpture in the museum where he works as a guard. Adam challenges her, she resists in a way that he finds irresistible, and soon they are the unlikeliest of couples.
Thing is, although Evelyn has chosen Adam, she also insists on remaking him: his hair, his clothes, his dining and sexual habits, his political and artistic opinions, even his relationship with his closest friend, Phillip (Fred Weller), a macho braggart engaged to Jenny (Gretchen Mol), over whom Adam has always secretly swooned. Again and again, Evelyn forces Adam to choose between some habit or taste or idea and her, and, smitten fool, he always concedes. But things aren't necessarily as they appear. Are they ever?
"The Shape of Things" is a tightly constructed film built of a dozen scenes in which Adam interacts with the other characters and reveals his metamorphoses, fears and desires. So it's somewhat hurtful to the whole that Rudd isn't as charismatic as Weisz and, especially, Weller, who has an impact comparable to that of LaBute's collaborator Aaron Eckhart in "In the Company of Men." Adam's meant to be something of a mook, but the likes of Hugh Grant and John Cusack can pull off such characters while still retaining a magnetism that doesn't betray the narrative. Rudd, a game actor, lacks their versatility.
Yet even with this crucial weakness, the film is so ingenious and handsome that you walk away favorably impressed and, you could swear it, smarter. Whether concerning itself with love, art, loyalty, friendship or fashion, "The Shape of Things" is a cunning portrait of contemporary mores and minds.
Friday, May 9, 2003
'Shape of Things,' by Detroit-born writer, could use some shaping up
By Tom Long / Detroit News Film Critic
'The Shape of Things'
Cynics fresh out of college will likely identify with "The Shape of Things" since it deals with the cruel machinations of the overly intellectual and young. Older cynics may find the entire enterprise too obvious, though, as well as more than a bit predictable.
The story is essentially nerdy boy (Paul Rudd) meets eccentric beautiful girl (Rachel Weisz), they begin dating, she transforms him both emotionally and physically, but in the end he learns her dark secret. Don't worry, she's not a mass murderer; it's more of a grad student dark secret.
In fact, "The Shape of Things," often resembles a college drama project. Detroit-born writer-director Neil LaBute ("Nurse Betty," "In the Company of Men") has adapted his own play from the stage here, although there's not really all that much adaptation apparent. OK, he probably wasn't able to have the Pacific Ocean in the background of the stage version, but other than that "Shape" looks pretty stagey.
It feels very staged as well. From the moment sexy rebel Evelyn hooks up with overweight, social klutz Adam, contrivance hangs in the air. Why is she with him? The same question haunts his engaged buddies Phillip (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol), especially as Adam begins to transform into a handsome Gap-model type. Ultimately Adam becomes everything he wasn't at one time, and everything he was is gone. What could be the meaning of all this?
Anyone who doesn't get what's going on by the halfway point isn't listening to art-as-life manipulator Evelyn. And that pretty much undercuts the big ta-da revelation LaBute depends on for his ending.
The playwright has an obvious gift for dialogue -- his banter between secret admirers Jenny and Adam is particularly good -- but here he also has a sad tendency toward dorm room philosophizing. Heaven knows he's done good work before ("Nurse Betty" was a jewel), but in "Shape" LaBute seems to be relying on big moments that never show up and surprises spied long ahead of time. Here's hoping he shapes up before the next time out.
Friday, May 09, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Cast knows this dark 'Shape' well -- and it shows
By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic
Grade: **1/1 [2.5 out of 4]
Fasten your seat belts -- this one's a bumpy ride. Writer/director Neil LaBute is back, which means there's nastiness afoot; "The Shape of Things" recalls his debut film "In the Company of Men," in its exploration of cruelty between the sexes. It's a compelling story, getting better as it goes along, but nonetheless suffers from being too obviously bound to its stage origins.
As its title indicates, "The Shape of Things" is about appearance and the importance we attach to it, which here approaches obsession. Specifically, it's about a college-age couple, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and Adam (Paul Rudd), whose intense relationship is marked by Evelyn's need to physically transform Adam. As he changes from shlubbiness to male-model polish, Adam's friends -- and soon Adam himself -- become alarmed, leading to a thoroughly nasty last-act surprise.
Even if you didn't know, you might have guessed that the cast of "The Shape of Things" -- Weisz, Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller -- have all performed this drama before, many times. (The four appeared together in the original production of LaBute's play, in both the London and New York stagings.) They know these characters inside-out, and while their work is meticulously detailed, it also feels too familiar -- pauses seem measured, and the characters often don't seem to be listening to each other, but waiting to deliver a line.
"The Shape of Things," with Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, Frederick Weller. Written and directed by Neil LaBute, based on his play. 97 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexuality. Metro, Uptown.
At times, the movie acts as a primer on the difference between stage acting and screen acting. Weisz, for example, has been a relaxed and lovely presence on screen (most recently in "About a Boy" and "Confidence"). Here, her actions seem choreographed, her dialogue coming too quickly. On stage, lightning-fast dialogue works fine; we're already in an artificial universe. In the more naturalistic world of film acting, we need to believe that the character only just thought up what she's going to say (even though we know that's not true). Weisz has some compelling close-ups here -- Evelyn's eyes tend to betray her -- but her performance feels like it's in the wrong place.
But LaBute, back to his old form here after the misguided "Possession," knows how to spin a story, and there are moments in "The Shape of Things" that have the bite of his earlier work. ("It's just flesh," says Evelyn, voice sharp as a scalpel, as they sit in a plastic surgeon's waiting room.) It's a gender-reversed, darkly twisted Pygmalion, and it leaves you cold, in all senses of the word. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; in LaBute's wickedly watchable universe, warmth is a rare commodity.