Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things”; Turning the Mirror on Messy Adult Relationships
by Scott Foundas
[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE originally published this review in January 2003 as part of our Sundance coverage; it is playing now in theaters from Focus Features.]
As Evelyn, the graduate art student with the chopstick-festooned hair in Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” Rachel Weisz acts like a firestorm, slowly crackling to life before bursting forth with a brilliant, forceful illumination. For the ferociously sexy Weisz, whose movie career had threatened to become “Mummy”-fied until her disarming appearance in “About a Boy” last year, the role is something of a revelation. Working her looks and her smarts for all they’re worth, turning on and off her little-girl voice as it suits the occasion, Evelyn gets her hooks in you, deep.
But Evelyn is just one of four major characters in LaBute’s new film, and only one of its many pleasures. Adapted from his stage play of the same name, this is a stinging work — a return to form following the romantic dalliance of “Possession” — that coyly disguises its true intentions until very late in the game, giddily leading us down swerving paths of misdirection. And if “The Shape of Things,” with its sparse cast and long, tableau-like shots occasionally seems a stage play in search of a movie, it is also a rabidly intense work that bristles (like Mike Leigh’s television production of “Abigail’s Party”) with the speed and assuredness that comes from nine months of daily performances. In the category of filmed plays, it has few equals.
This is the story of how Evelyn meets the undergraduate English major Adam (Paul Rudd, who still possesses a magnificent ability to seem collegiate) as she is about to deface a statue in the college museum where Adam works as a part-time guard. And it is the story of how Adam falls head-over-heels for Evelyn (and who wouldn’t, after she spray-paints her phone number on the inside of his uniform jacket). The two become an item, with Evelyn entering Adam’s circle of friends, including fellow students Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller in a role that LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart might have played).
As time passes, Jenny and Philip begin to notice subtle changes in Adam: he seems to be working out, losing weight, has changed his hairstyle and conspicuously traded in his glasses for contact lenses. Is this all a superficial effort to please Evelyn, to live up to some imagined ideal of the “attractive male”? Moreover, is it a transformation that has been demanded by Evelyn as a condition of her relationship with Adam? Or, are Jenny and Philip merely projecting their own jealousies and insecurities onto their friends? To say much more would be to risk unfurling LaBute’s tight-fisted construction.
“The Shape of Things” may not break any really new ground for LaBute, but it is perhaps his deftest and most understanding piece to date. Understanding of the lies we tell each other, the ways we use each other and our undying obsession with cosmetic surfaces. This has been the filmmaker’s terrain since the beginning (with “In the Company of Men”), but LaBute’s ploughing of it has grown only more fruitful over the years, as even the heretofore reliable Woody Allen has given up exposing the messy red tape of adult relationships in his films (and LaBute has long seemed like Allen’s bully kid brother). LaBute’s strength (beyond his crackerjack ear for dialogue) lies in holding his audience’s face up to the mirror and forcing it to see all the imperfections and blemishes it would rather ignore. And this time around, he does so without the cushioning comfort of any characters as overtly nihilistic or contemptible as, say, Eckhart in “Men” or Catherine Keener in “Your Friends and Neighbors.” (And just when you think otherwise, he turns that expectation on its head.) Which makes the final impact of “The Shape of Things” that much harder to shake.