The Shape of Things
2003, R, 97 min. Directed by Neil LaBute. Starring Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, Fred Weller.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 16, 2003
Playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute describes his latest, The Shape of Things, as a sort of retort to critics who branded him a misogynist for his first feature, In the Company of Men. The Shape of Things is meant to be the flipside to that film, proof that women can be just as calculating, conniving, and rotten to the core as men. LaBute has indeed proved that he’s an equal-opportunity critic, and that so much doesn’t bother me; I suspect LaBute and I could agree to raise our glasses and toast Old Man Sartre and his maxim about hell and other people (specifically, hell is other people). That pretty much sums up The Shape of Things’ driving ideology – a provocative one to be sure – so why was I checking my watch every few minutes? Because The Shape of Things is a stilted, awkward (im)morality play, one that, disappointingly, suggests LaBute’s recent missteps at the multiplex might not be flukes but rather the beginnings of a trend. He followed his attention-grabbing debut with the vitriolic (but in a good way) Your Friends and Neighbors; from there, it’s been one dud after the other: the unfunny, forgettable Nurse Betty, the wan Possession, and now this. LaBute adapted the film from his stage play, and you can tell: Excessively talky and unimaginatively directed, the film, which enlists the same four actors who hit the boards in London and New York, feels very tethered to the ground. Paul Rudd plays Adam, a pudgy, trollish guy who means well but underwhelms. He’s a loser, if only because he believes it to be so. Enter Evelyn (Weisz), an edgy (well, grad-school art-student edgy) doctoral candidate who takes a liking to Adam. They begin dating; he gains confidence, and contact lenses, and a nose job. (And yes, that evolution is handled with equal lack of subtlety in the film.) Adam’s best friend Phillip (Weller) is suspicious of the new-and-improved version, but Phillip’s fiancée, Jenny (Mol) – on whom Adam always had a crush – has certainly noticed how nicely he seems to fill out his khakis now. The film means to explore society’s perceptions about appearance and the great lengths to which we go to mold our features into something other people will like and approve of; the final result is about as revelatory as a freshman’s term paper for Intro to Women’s Studies. Actually, it’s an intentionally banal thesis; LaBute’s real ambition is the further exposing of the fundamental cruelties of men and women. And yet, that one’s a bit of a no-brainer, too. It helps not a lick that his ensemble characters are mostly dim caricatures; the psychologically complex characters in Your Friends and Neighbors were far better vessels for illuminating the hidden evil in all of our hearts. Save for the film’s "big twist" at the end, there’s zero complexity here: What you see is what you get, and what you get is awfully dull. None of the actors – too old to be playing fresh-faced college kids – seem terribly interested in their roles, save for Weisz, who brings sass and craftiness to her part as the older, mentorlike girlfriend; you see the wheels constantly turning for Evelyn, whereas the other three appear to have nothing but empty space upstairs. That may very well be the point, but it's a rather tiresome and facile one. If LaBute wants to plumb the depths of human unkindness, have at it – only dig deeper next time.