Movie review: 'The Shape of Things'

MoviesEntertainmentArtArts and CultureRachel WeiszCompanies and CorporationsPaul Rudd

3 stars (out of 4)

One staple of romantic relationships is the desire to "fix" some of your partner's character traits. Evelyn, the heroine or anti-heroine (depending on your perspective) of Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," takes this art to greater lengths than most.

The movie, based on LaBute's play of the same name and starring the same four actors from the play, chronicles the makeover that beautiful art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) applies to Adam (Paul Rudd), a nerdy, somewhat chubby undergraduate who's ripe for someone to bring out his inner cutie. The changes affect not just his appearance but also his relationships with longtime, now-engaged friends Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller).

The material is sort of a throwback to LaBute's first two movies, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," after the bigger-budgeted, broader-canvassed "Nurse Betty" (in which he directed someone else's screenplay) and "Possession" (in which he adapted A.S. Byatt's novel). Like the first pair of films, LaBute once again homes in on an intimate group of men and women and the razor-edged sexual politics among them.

But "The Shape of Things" occupies its own distinct space from the first two movies. Neither "Company of Men," which satirically addresses misogyny as an offshoot of brutal male corporate culture, nor "Friends & Neighbors," which rubs your face in the grim love lives of the unfulfilled, is concerned with whether you like its characters.

Some of the behavior in "The Shape of Things" is every bit as nasty as in the other films, but this time LaBute's knife is sheathed in plusher fabric. Though you still sense some distance between the filmmaker and his creations, he lets you warm up to these people so you're on board as he explores the larger issues their behavior suggests.

Adam and Evelyn - the symbolic names are no accident - meet while he's working as a school museum guard and she literally crosses the line to spray-paint a sculpture that has had its genitalia covered. "You're cute. I don't like your hair," she tells him, and a romance is begun.

Soon she's suggesting wardrobe and styling fixes and taking him to graphic performance-art happenings. We don't see them there; we just hear the conversation afterward as she enthuses over one and he just doesn't get the artistic merit of a woman using her … well, you probably wouldn't either. She's of the art-equals-provocation-equals-truth school and butts heads with Philip, who's more of a regular-guy philistine, though his and Jenny's plan to get married underwater undercuts LaBute's presentation of them as straights.

LaBute doesn't pretend that his source material is anything other than a play. He keeps the action divided into 10 discrete scenes, with snippets of Elvis Costello's poisoned-romance songs (the musical equivalent of velvet-sheathed knives) serving as the links between them.

You must accept a certain theatricality to the material, as much of the action occurs off screen, and what's there hasn't been "opened up" so that conversations take place over multiple locations. The performances are scaled down from what they must have been in the theater, but LaBute's dialogue has its own particular rhythms that aren't entirely "realistic." And that's fine. The writing is smart, so you stick with the story on its own terms.

Rudd may be too handsome to establish Adam's supposed initial homeliness; his transformation comes more in the way he carries himself and the way others, particularly Jenny, relate to him. As such, his performance is convincing, warm and free of condescension, though LaBute can't help leaving in a shot of Adam glancing back at Jenny from a playground rocking horse, looking like a complete doofus. (It's a funny image, but poor guy...)

Mol brings a sweet simplicity to Jenny, while the oft-sneering Weller makes clear why Evelyn would have such an allergic reaction to Philip, though you don't figure how he and Adam became best friends in the first place.

The movie ultimately lies on Weisz's shoulders, though, as she has to convince you that Adam would give in to Evelyn's manipulations, her obvious beauty notwithstanding. And she does, her performance balancing seduction and the sense that she's one eye twinkle away from being a whack job. Evelyn is the character who would be most at home in the take-no-prisoners world of LaBute's earlier works, yet you suspect the director's sympathies might lie closest with her, or at least her inclination to shake things up.

Any meaningful dissection of "The Shape of Things" must revolve around the ending, yet revealing it would be a crime against art. Suffice it to say that LaBute is interested in the way that surfaces affect our perceptions of content, and how those perceptions can, in turn, become our reality.

His resolution is far from subtle, the last scene a veritable battle of opposing theses, stated bluntly. You become all too aware that these characters are vessels for ideas that LaBute has enjoyed setting in conflict. But they're engaging ideas nonetheless, and LaBute never loses sight of what shape he wishes this crafty story to take. In the end, his aim is true.

"The Shape of Things"
Written and directed by Neil LaBute, based on his stage play; photographed by James L. Carter; edited by Joel Plotch; production designed by Lynette Meyer; music by Elvis Costello; produced by LaBute, Gail Mutrux, Philip Steuer, Rachel Weisz. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, May 9. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: R (language, some sexuality).
Jenny - Gretchen Mol
Adam - Paul Rudd
Evelyn - Rachel Weisz
Philip - Frederick Weller

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MoviesEntertainmentArtArts and CultureRachel WeiszCompanies and CorporationsPaul Rudd
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