The Shape of Things Review
By Shawn McKenzie 05/09/2003
I swear…is there something wrong with me? I am such a nice guy normally, but I find cruel people in movies and on TV fascinating. It has to be some sort of therapy for me, because it certainly doesn’t mean I desire to act like these characters. I’m not sure I am completely alone though. I’ll give you an example. The contestants on CBS’s “Star Search” are clearly more talented than the finalists on “American Idol” are, yet I (and the rest of America) prefer to watch “AI.” Why is that? Simon Cowell is the reason. All of the judges on “Star Search” are too nice, yet Simon is bluntly honest and cruel sometimes. It is much more fun to watch.
Cruel characters used to be the trademark of writer/director Neil LaBute’s films. His first movie, In the Company of Men, was a masterpiece in cruel jerky relationship humor. I’m sure most guys who watched it were shocked, but agreed with parts of it secretly (for the record, I didn’t.) It was like the extreme misguided thoughts of egotistical jerks played out right in front of you. His second film, Your Friends and Neighbors, didn’t pack the same punch, but it still had interesting characters that took suppressed emotions to the extreme, especially with Jason Patric’s character. His third film, Nurse Betty, veered off the formula for an attempt at commercial success, but at least it veered into another neighborhood I like…black comedy. Then we had Possession. I hated this film! It was boring with no interesting characters. There was no black comedy, no cruel characters (okay one, but not for very long, and only near the end, when you’ve already fallen asleep), and no excitement. I considered it the worst film of 2002, partly because of the film itself, and partly because I felt LaBute had let me down. His latest film, The Shape of Things, has restored my faith in him.
Adam (Paul Rudd) is a dorky college student who has just gotten a job at a museum. He is assigned to guard a naked male statue. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is another college student who wants to spray paint some male genitalia on the statue as a form of protest against ancient censorship. She encounters Adam, and she offers her phone number to Adam in exchange for his willingness to look away while she commits her act of vandalism. Since Evelyn is smoking hot and Adam is so awkward and goofy, he figures that this is his only chance to score with her. Soon the two are dating, and Rachel finds his intelligence and shyness charming, but feels he needs to change a few things. First, she gets him to dress better and do something with his hair. Next, she has him change physically, including working out, getting laser-eye surgery, and get a nose job. You’d think she was a consultant on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover.” This doesn’t sit well with his best friend, Phillip (Fred Weller), or Phil’s fiancé, Jenny (Gretchen Mol.) Jenny is also a hottie, and Adam had always wanted to ask her out, but he never got the nerve, and now she is engaged to Phil. Phil is kind of a jerk, but he is a good friend, and he is concerned that Adam is becoming a doormat. Adam ignores the warnings of his friends, because he feels he has struck gold with Evelyn, and he will never find another woman like her again. The final thing Evelyn does to change Adam is to change him psychologically. Soon he has self-confidence, and that results in old feelings for Jenny to pop up again. He kisses Jenny (who kisses him back, apparently because she had always had a crush on Adam too), and that completed his transformation from a shy, timid mouse to a macho (or somewhat macho) man. With his newfound self-image, Adam has to decide if he wants to stay with Evelyn, pursue Jenny, or drop both to please Phil.
I purposely left out the description of the ending, but you can see it coming. That is okay, because, even though you know what is coming, you don’t know how extreme it is going to be. The ending alone is what makes this film the best thing LaBute has done since In the Company of Men. This film is sort of the yang to Company’s yin. His first film showed how cruel men could be, while this film does the same number on women. While I doubt there is any woman that would go to the extremes of Evelyn, most women feel the need to change men in one way or another. Even Jenny admits that Phil would be perfect if it weren’t for six little things about him that annoyed her. The fact that she had an actual number meant that she obviously thought about it. While I didn’t object to most of the things she did to change him (that jacket he wore was just plain ugly), I did object to her trying to keep him away from his friends. Your friends are part of what makes you who you are, and women should realize that. That person you first became attracted to was partially formed by his or her friends. I guess I’m not a big fan of trying to change a person, since it makes them lose their original personality.
The acting in this movie is top notch. Not that he usually plays strong leading characters, but I’ve never seen Rudd play a character so nerdy before, and he pulled it off beautifully. He acted just as I did in my first year of college. If I hadn’t gained some self-esteem of my own since then, I probably would have been a doormat to a hot woman myself (I never quite got that chance in college though…) Weisz has once again proven this year that she is not merely the Mummy damsel-in-distress. She was slick in Confidence, and she is brutal here. Mol does a decent job as the attractive but slightly shy Jenny. Weller summons the spirit of Aaron Eckhart, the actor LaBute would usually have in this role (even though Eckhart was in LaBute’s first four movies, he might have been a little too old to play this role.)
This is a warning and not a criticism: this movie is an adaptation of a play of the same name also written by LaBute, and it feels like a play. Each scene is structured like a scene in a play, so if you’re not a big fan of the theatre, you might be turned off by this movie.
Some may say my high praise for The Shape of Things may be derived from my lowered expectations of LaBute after Possession. While that may be partially true, I think it mostly goes to my original point that cruel people are fascinating. Why do I get so much pleasure from seeing people giving other people pain? For one, it is because I know that it is fiction (or in the case of reality shows, I am aware of the fact that everyone involved knew what they were getting into.) Secondly, I think subconsciously people find the behavior of characters that are very different from them interesting…or maybe that’s just me. Either way, if you are a happy, sunny person and hate characters like Simon Cowell, Romano from “E.R.,” or pretty much any movie villain, then you will hate this flick. Otherwise, I think you will agree with me that this film is the perfect bookend to Labute’s first film. I hope he keeps it up. Hey…wouldn’t it be interesting to see Evelyn from this movie date Chad from In the Company of Men?
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