The Shape of Things
review by Dan Lybarger, 23 May 2003

Neil LaBute's movies frequently play better at home than they do in the theater. His first two films In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors have a humor that's often obscured by the hateful actions of the characters. When the character says or does something funny -- like when Ben Stiller clumsily seduces Amy Brenneman in Your Friends & Neighbors -- it's awkward to acknowledge that anything funny is going on because other filmgoers might stare back in disgust.

LaBute's last couple of films, Possession and Nurse Betty, allowed him to expand his palette and to show he had more to offer than clever, sharply observed misanthropy. Possession was especially noteworthy because it's a rare film that makes literary research look sexy and exciting. With his latest, The Shape of Things, LaBute is back in terra squirma. The venom that ran through In the company of Men is back in full force along with LaBute's snappy dialogue and skill with actors.

In The Shape of Things, LaBute gives Paul Rudd (Clueless) a chance to show he can play more than handsome, generic nice guys. Reprising his role in LaBute's stage play of the same name (the two have known each other since both attended the University of Kansas), Rudd stars as Adam, a literature student who works as a museum guard to pay bills. Portly, bespectacled and socially maladroit, he seems strangely blessed when an outgoing, free-spirited graduate art student starts taking a keen interest in him. He catches Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, Confidence) crossing the ropes at an exhibit and curiously winds up dating instead of busting her. Initially flattered by Evelyn's attention, Adam gradually discovers there are strings attached to the relationship. Many of her demands seem rather helpful. Adam's weight drops, he switches to contact lenses and his taste in clothes improves.

Some of her requests seem weird and less than benign. Evelyn likes to tape their lovemaking. She also thinks little of alienating Adam's friends. Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Frederick Weller) are rather conservative and don't take kindly to Evelyn's more Bohemian outlook. Nonetheless, Evelyn has an ability to get under their skins as well because Phillip and Jenny's upcoming wedding is beginning to look less and less likely because of Evelyn's influence.

It's not too far off to say that The Shape of Things is In the Company of Men with a female predator instead of Aaron Eckhart's eerily mesmerizing Chad. Like Chad, Weisz's Evelyn has a paralyzing intelligence that subdues anyone foolish enough to mess with her. Whereas Chad seemed to revel in other people's suffering, Evelyn appears more blithely oblivious to the damage she inflicts. It's almost as if being a heartbreaker is a duty for her rather than an emotional joyride. LaBute, who took some biting potshots at corporate culture in In the Company of Men, seems to be indicating that being Bohemian can be just as reprehensible.

LaBute and Rudd also draw Adam well enough so that he's sympathetic but that his eventual collapse makes sense. Adam at times begs for his misfortune. When Evelyn makes an astute observation, he replies, "Those are wise words for someone with such a great ass."

Sadly, The Shape of Things might seem a little fresher if LaBute's earlier films hadn't covered this territory so well. Like his first two flicks, The Shape of Things is rather talky. It's predecessors, however, were written for the screen and didn't seem quite as stiff or stagebound. It's an interesting tradeoff because it's hard to imagine a regional theater troupe doing as well with this material as the cast in the film does. Still, with only four speaking parts, The Shape of Things comes off as a little too artificial for its own good. Weisz's treachery is admittedly fun to watch, but if you've seen any of LaBute's earlier films, you wonder if he just needs to start hanging out with nicer people once in a while.

Written and
Directed by:

Neil LaBute

Starring:
Paul Rudd
Rachel Weisz
Gretchen Mol
Frederick Weller

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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