In his remorseless yet compelling 1997 debut film “In the Company of Men,” writer-director Neil LaBute revealed how nasty and cruel young white males, clad in an all but impervious armor of entitlement, could take out their frustrations and anger on women. With “The Shape of Things,” which he adapted from his 2001 play of the same name, LaBute shows that women are capable of treating men in much the same manner.
Unfortunately, this film is not as convincing as LaBute’s first feature, for it betrays its origins in the theatricality of its dialogue, resulting in an aura of artificiality. An even larger problem lies in LaBute’s conception of its heroine and how he has directed Rachel Weisz to play her. For “The Shape of Things” to work, it is essential for Weisz’s Evelyn to come across as a spellbinding seductress rather than the clearly disturbed troublemaker she so obviously is.
With his principals named Adam and Evelyn, LaBute must have had the fall from the Garden of Eden in mind, a dawning of the battle of the sexes, as it were. In any event, LaBute seems ever intent on giving heterosexuality a bad name. Paul Rudd’s nerdy Adam is a part-time guard at a museum on the campus of a California coast college where he is an English major.
Just as his shift is about to end, he comes upon Evelyn, a graduate art student, stepping inside the ropes surrounding an enormous Herculean Greek or Roman statue to which a plaster fig leaf has been applied in deference to community sensibilities. It is Evelyn’s intent to paint onto the fig leaf that which it is concealing in the name of truth. She easily disarms the shy, ineffectual Adam by offering him her phone number. In an instant, it is clear that she sees in Adam clay to be molded.
Using sex as her weapon, she quickly has Adam in her thrall for a makeover. Jogging off 20 pounds, plus a decent haircut and some new clothes work wonders on Adam, who even goes along with having his slightly bulbous nose subtly narrowed. Adam emerges a strikingly handsome, trim young man whose new image naturally boosts his self-esteem. Yet Evelyn keeps on tightening her leash and alienating his friends Philip (Frederick Weller), Adam’s ex-roommate, and Philip’s pretty fiancee Jenny (Gretchen Mol).
Not surprisingly, Evelyn has a hidden agenda, as did the Aaron Eckhart character in “In the Company of Men,” and while it proves to a clever jolter, its impact is diminished because Evelyn is such a cold, transparent manipulator from the get-go. Had she been capable of being disarmingly adorable, “The Shape of Things,” for all its theatricality, might have generated considerably more meaning and impact. It’s too bad she isn’t, for Evelyn is a complex character, at once insufferably pretentious in regard to her views on art, a fearless truth-teller adroit at skewering Philip for the obnoxious male chauvinist pig that he is, yet painfully out of touch with herself and her motives. In a stronger film, the irony that Evelyn could be said to have an ultimately positive effect on the three individuals around her would cut deeper.
Evelyn is a neurotic control freak who kids herself that she’s making bold statements about the nature of art; had “The Shape of Things” been sharper it might have emerged as a provocative comment on the notion that anything can be called art. Evelyn has a large banner stating that “Moralists have no place in an art gallery,” a sentiment some people and most critics would go along with, but its effect is amusing because it is a quote from the late novelist Han Suyin, who had a tendency to be as self-important as Evelyn.
Mol comes across appealingly as a nice young woman drawn to Adam before his makeover and now beset by his inability to throw off the chains in which Evelyn has imprisoned him.
Weller works hard at being repellent, adopting an off-putting mannered way of speaking that at times seems as if he is doing an impression of Christian Slater’s impression of Jack Nicholson.
Rudd is a consistent charmer, providing Adam with all the shadings absent from Weisz’s Evelyn.
“The Shape of Things,” alas, is pretty flat.
‘The Shape of Things’
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexuality
Times guidelines: Some strong language, adult themes
A Focus Features release of a Focus Features and StudioCanal presentation of a Working Title production in association with Pretty Pictures. Writer-director Neil LaBute; based on his stage play. Producers LaBute, Gail Mutrux, Philip Steuer, Rachel Weisz. Executive producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Cinematographer James L. Carter. Editor Joel Plotch. Songs Elvis Costello. Costume and production design Lynette Meyer. Art director Christopher H. Lawrence. Set decorator Sondra Thorpe. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
At selected theaters.