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SHAPE OF THINGS, THE (director/writer: Neil LaBute; screenwriter: from Mr. LaBute’s play; cinematographer: James L. Carter; editor: Joel Plotch; music: Elvis Costello; cast: Rachel Weisz (Evelyn), Paul Rudd (Adam), Frederick Weller (Philip), Gretchen Mol (Jenny); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: LaBute/Gail Mutrux/Philip Steuer/Rachel Weisz; Focus Features; 2003)
“There was too much of the neurotic artist in the prose to speak for all art.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Neil LaBute after making “Nurse Betty” and ” Possession“returns to making his own hard-edged films as he did earlier on “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors.” He adapts to the screen his own play that first opened in London in 2001. Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol, and Frederick Weller who starred in the play re-create their roles in the film. It’s a contemporary drama about love and art set in California’s Mercy College campus. Adam is a nerdy college senior English major who works part-time in a video store and as a security guard in the college’s museum. Evelyn is an enticingly appealing graduate M.F.A. student, who annoys by being outspoken, weird and unstable. She dresses in a Che Guevara T-shirt and wears a Mao button. He dresses in an unfashionable corduroy sports jacket. They meet when she crosses the museum’s rope barrier to spray-paint a penis on the fig leaf of a marble statue of an ancient male deity. The leaf was ordered by a committee of citizens outraged at the nudity. Asked by Adam why she’s doing it, she rattles on in a polemic tone “I hate art that isn’t true.” Adam is more interested in getting her phone number than in preventing the desecration, and is surprised when she so easily agrees to date him. The scene is meant to duplicate the Garden of Eden, with Adam tempted by Eve. To further reinforce this temptation, it is later learned that her full name is Evelyn Ann Thompson–with its acronym, EAT.

Evelyn has big plans to transform the image of the insecure and slovenly and chubby Adam, and also has a hidden agenda. The story follows their steadily intensifying relationship, as Evelyn strengthens her hold by offering him her love. She displays a grating attitude toward Adam’s two best college friends who are an engaged suburban-like couple, the sweetly attractive blonde Jenny and the smug chauvinist Philip, Adam’s former roommate. The two couples make for a pleasantly unwholesome foursome, as Jenny hides her desires behind a demure smile and Philip is so pleased with himself that he preens like a peacock. Evelyn’s role is as the troublemaker, whose aim is to cause a train wreck; while Adam is the train wreck who is so grateful for being saved that he’s willing to do what he normally wouldn’t do to show his gratitude.

In every scene Adam becomes better looking. He gets a trendy haircut, loses weight, gets contacts and cosmetic surgery on his nose, and starts wearing a Tommy Hilfiger jacket instead of his corduroy. Though Evelyn’s relationship with the friends causes friction, and leaves the uptight Adam confused on how to handle things. In the foursome’s get togethers, which are mostly meetings with them two at a time, Philip is exposed as a rotten guy inside, while Jenny becomes unsure about her upcoming marriage slated to be an underwater ceremony.

Meanwhile Evelyn has taken complete charge of the once misfit Adam, getting him to follow her socially correct commands as she vastly improves his appearance to such a degree that even the American Dream girl Jenny now finds him attractive. In one scene in a playground, Adam gets a chance to act on his long-time crush on Jenny when she kisses him. If anything went further than that it was not shown, but was hinted at when Evelyn slyly brings it up in a confrontational scene at Starbucks with Adam and Jenny. The cold-hearted Ms. even gets him to choose her over his friends from the last three years, after giving him the choice that it is either them or her. The manipulative attention-getter also keeps a video camera on him and records their lovemaking, which embarrasses the shy lover when she threatens to show it to others. Evelyn upsets the others when she glowingly approves of a performance art act that involved the artist finger-painting with her own menstrual blood.

Adam does wonder what a hot chick like Evelyn sees in him and asks: “Why would you like me? I’m not anything.” She seems annoyed at his insecurities and encourages him to accept her gift of love as really happening. Adam, representing mankind (gosh!), falls from grace when he starts becoming cocky with his increased good looks, lies about his bandaged nose by saying he tripped, and starts losing his genuine qualities by flirting with other women while telling Evelyn he loves only her.

LaBute’s movie reaches its shock climax in a Mercy College auditorium, as the film opens and closes with a shock performance art event in an art venue of an educational institution. The film ends in the gallery with a Godard like political message written on a banner tacked onto the wall “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” It’s a quote attributed to the late contemporary Chinese-Belgian novelist Han Suyin, known for his Evelyn-like pomposity. All the messages sent revolve around the bitterness that goes with relationships (all four depart as no longer friends or lovers) and how the artist is a self-serving egotist and the art world is dependent on people without taste to support it. This goes with LaBute’s misanthropic territory he staked out as a way to view modern mankind, which seems to indicate that the converted Mormon wants a return to the biblical days of uncomplicated purity. Rachel Weisz is the filmmaker’s alter ego and takes glee in her mannered performance of throwing out all sorts of poison darts at the viewer and the art community and the three squares she hangs with. She sees herself, perhaps, like an updated Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler female monster. The men stars performed up to type, with Frederick Weller coming up with a good comic effort. Paul Rudd gives a refreshingly shaded performance where he’s likable but never quite so that he doesn’t disappoint. But Gretchen Mol’s performance seemed the most sensitive and the one that was less cartoonish than the others. She was able to make her Jenny into a tempting character not only by her good looks but through her mixture of passion and morality, which seemed a difficult task since she didn’t have the same potent lines as her female competitor. Though the film was well-performed by the ensemble cast and sharply written and visually pleasing, it’s only the shock ending that holds the story together. The Catch-22 dilemma in reviewing this film is that not telling the surprise ending leaves a detailed analysis lacking perspective; but to tell would spoil it for the reader who has not seen it.

“Shape” seemed to draw all its sustenance from commonplace observations of the characters trying to relate to each other in an academic environment.

LaBute is a clever playwright who is skeptical of not only relationships but the artist and the art institutions such as the galleries and theaters, but still can’t resist being a player in the art scene. The Shape of Things had too much of a surface feel and the stifling air of a theater conceit to be more than a tantalizing work. But it held my interest even if it failed to convince me that it hit anything more than an hilarious note, even though it played it straight and did not aim for comedy. It challenged me to like characters who were not that likable even though they had charm, and I succumbed to at least one of the characters. But it failed to get me intellectually engaged in an expansive way. There was too much of the neurotic artist in the prose to speak for all art.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”