starring Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, Fred Weller
screenplay by Neil LaBute, based on his play
directed by Neil LaBute
by Walter Chaw Early in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, a character mistakes "Medea" for "My Fair Lady". Not an easy thing to do, for sure, it's something that points to both LaBute's instinct to proselytize and to his unpleasant air of smug intellectual superiority. LaBute's films are science projects involved in the dissection of sexual politics; at their best, they illustrate the harshest salvos lobbed in the gender war, and at their worst, they serve mainly to confirm that LaBute has become so disdainful of his audience that first Possession and now The Shape of Things most resemble listless beasts over-burdened with broad symbol, churlishness, and portentous allusion. LaBute wants to hit you over the head and get away with something at the same time, his existential rage cooling in direct proportion to the self-pitying belief that no one understands him.
Structured as it is like an undergraduate survey in comparative literature, The Shape of Things is meticulous and meticulously telegraphed. "My Fair Lady" outlines its makeover plot and, more obliquely, the sexual dysfunction implied by the Pygmalion myth (tipping off the film's visual and thematic debt to Vertigo along the way), while "Medea" outlines its sexual-jealousy plot and woman scorned. With posters of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and Chekov's "The Seagull" splitting time with the martyr quote from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, LaBute litters The Shape of Things with references to works involved in the sacredness of performance, the artificiality of theatre, and destructions by beloveds. Potentially well and good--if only LaBute didn't punctuate his visual cues with a wordiness that functions as sour footnote to the director's snooty cleverness.
A PA announcement over the film's opening credits, for instance, broadcasts an Alex Katz retrospective, and indeed, the whole of the picture's visual style is a shrine to abstract realist Katz's reductive portraits and primary colours. (The artist's 1963 painting of his wife, "Study of the Red Smile," appears to be the literal model for the concluding scene's set design and blocking.) Perhaps in honour of Katz's sensibility, character changes can be predicted by the colour of the hobbyhorse Adam rides in his playground epiphany (and by the rigid dictates of the film's wardrobe: he in browns and yellows, she in mercurial blue). Meanwhile, complex behavioural rationales are boiled down to Chekov's Treplev's "she loves me not" flower game, emblazoned at the end of the film in a literal neon sign.
The Shape of Things follows awkward Adam (Paul Rudd) meeting cute his rib Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) as she prepares to draw a penis on a censored sculpture, trading his silence for her phone number. As their relationship progresses, Evelyn gradually sculpts Adam into the kind of hunky milquetoast that has become Rudd's stock-in-trade, much to the dismay of Adam's testosterone-retarded pal Phil (Fred Weller) and Phil's shapeless fiancé, Jenny (Gretchen Mol). It's an Ayn Rand sort of social fantasy as Evelyn reshapes Adam in an idealized image, the exercise technically interesting but constructed so as to stultify with the rigidity and forced artificiality of its architecture. Consider the example of Evelyn's monogram ("EAT"): a banner statement of her predatory nature, when Adam reveals to Evelyn that he's had it tattooed to his pelvic bone, LaBute hammers the already unsubtle point home with a shot of Evelyn licking it.
The bland hatefulness of Phil and Jenny suggests a potential invitation by LaBute to consider The Shape of Things as a statement about artificiality and pretension rather than something artificial and pretentious. Yet for all the contortions it goes through to make itself satire, at its heart the picture is little more than an apologia for LaBute's reputation as mirthless chronicler of gender distrust. The film's dialogue laboriously defines LaBute's art manifesto as a combination of Han Suyin's "moralists have no place in an art gallery" and his own less ornate but no less self-important "there is only art." The film's focus on betrayal also reveals itself to be both textual and extratextual, with LaBute the victim of his critics just as his alter ego Adam is the victim of Evelyn. LaBute is like Todd Solondz (and The Shape of Things is like Storytelling): once filmmakers celebrated for their excoriations of the hypocrisies of social interaction, they now address critics in simpering films with unsubtle monologues and fourth wall-breaking middle fingers. The shock of The Shape of Things is no longer sprung from LaBute's prickly rage, but instead located in LaBute's self-defeating belief that any kind of justification is necessary in the first place.
The Shape of Things is most fascinating as a statement not of the extent to which a woman can behave just like the men of LaBute's In the Company of Men, but as an auto-critical picture that leaves LaBute exposed as exactly Evelyn's breed of emotional bully and intellectual snob. The justification for Evelyn's sociopathic manipulation of Adam as some sort of rail against the indifference of the status quo is rendered curiously impotent by the anti-heroine's insistence on wearing Chairman Mao buttons and Che Guevara T-shirts manufactured in the Warhol pop-art style. Evelyn is an erstwhile Hedda Gabler whose every touch renders something "ludicrous and mean"--and Evelyn is LaBute's mouthpiece. The greatest failure of The Shape of Things is not its literary pretensions and glacial remove; rather, it's in the mad rush to justify its creator in a labyrinth of signs and signifiers, thus pulling back the curtain on him instead. Originally published: May 9, 2003.