The Shape of Things

The_Shape_of_Things_12776_MediumI Love You, Now Change is, I believe, the title of one self-help book or another (and if not, it should be). It describes the phenomenon of narcissists who find that almost perfect someone, then suggest alterations to fix him or her more to their liking, always under the pretense of trying to help. Perhaps they believe it themselves. In The Shape of Things, the close-cutting new film by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty), a schlumpy grad student named Adam (Paul Rudd) meets an alluring art major named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). They fall in love, mainly off-camera, and every time we see Adam he gets less schlumpy. His friends Phillip (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol), far from being happy about his self-improvement, get worried. As well they should, because Phillip and Jenny are about to be married, and Adam’s situation makes them think about things they’d rather not deal with.

Check the names: Adam and Eve(lyn). LaBute is fond of meaningful names, and we pick up a scent of unease: Is Evelyn offering Adam the forbidden fruit of self-knowledge? Was he happier before Evelyn came into his life and nudged him out of his rut? He loses weight, loses his frumpy clothing, finally loses his old nose in favor of a streamlined new one. I’m not sure how well this worked on the stage, where the material originated, but in the film we can see Adam transforming from a tweedy Sam Gamgee type to the generically handsome Paul Rudd (whose all-American looks LaBute used to subversive effect in “A Gaggle of Saints,” one of his pieces in Bash: Latter-Day Plays). Phillip, perhaps sensing the loss of the familiar dynamic between himself and Adam, is threatened; Jenny, newly attracted to Adam, reaches out to him.

Rachel Weisz is well on her way to becoming another Helena Bonham Carter (whom she resembles). She’s shown an affinity for quirky indie fare as well as the knockabout fun in the Mummy series, and her passion for the material here — to the extent of co-producing the film — overrides whatever qualms we have about Evelyn. We feel her presence when she’s not around; the other characters are always discussing Evelyn and her impact on Adam. Evelyn is also dedicated to her version of truth, which in LaBute territory means blurting out secrets with a flat affect and at the worst time. We don’t quite know how to read her, so we take her as perhaps a necessary grain of sand in the oyster, with Adam as the emerging pearl. After all, she’s really only shaking things up that maybe needed shaking up.

Things get shaken, all right. The last act, which I won’t reveal, carries echoes of In the Company of Men and the Bash plays, in which we’re lured into accepting a character’s motives only to have the rug pulled out from under us. Using only one character, a microphone, and two photos, LaBute gives us a sequence of scathing emotional violence that outdoes anything I’ve seen this year. Is it plausible? Not really, but LaBute dotes on theatrical flourishes. Things are literally unveiled here, including a pair of middle fingers extended to the audience (yes, that means us as well as the audience in the film), like punk rock played at a chamber-music recital.

The Shape of Things finds LaBute back in the artsy, misanthropic universe he’s been edging away from lately (in the lovely Nurse Betty and the atypical love story Possession). In that respect, it’s a bit of a regression. It’s not an unwelcome one, though. LaBute exaggerates hostilities and conflicts, gives us master schemers nowhere to be found in real life, in order to open a conversation about how we relate to each other and how we create ourselves. The key to the movie is that it’s not about cold manipulation, but about a cold, manipulative view of human nature. LaBute doesn’t necessarily share it; he simply presents it.

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