reviewed by Ken Hanke
Anyone going to Neil La Bute’s The Shape of Things expecting a film in the mold of his 2002 offering, Possession, is in for a shock — and perhaps a disappointment.
The expansive, literary-minded, good-humored, and utterly romantic Possession is worlds away from The Shape of Things — a film La Bute adapted from his own play. Shape returns him to the central concerns of his earlier films like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors.
In other words, where Possession was astonishingly — if sometimes bitterly — romantic, The Shape of Things might be called an anti-romance.
La Bute is fascinated with — perhaps possessed by — the interactions of men and women, and from a primarily male point of view. It might be added that his perspective is singularly bleak — in many ways, Shape is his grimmest portrait to date.
It’s not an entirely honest work, though it’s honest enough to be uncomfortable: Finding yourself in a relationship where the other person measures your worth like a tailor sizing up an uncut piece of cloth is more or less a universal predicament. And La Bute’s deceptively cinematic touch heightens the tension: In dialogue scenes, he tends to cut between his characters, isolating each on different sides of the wide frame. With each cut, the viewer’s eyes shift from side to side — ultimately conveying an uneasy sense of sitting between the characters and turning your head to catch what they’re saying. It feels uncomfortably like eavesdropping.
The story line, though, is a somewhat heavy-handed (and uneasily misogynistic) take on Adam and Eve. Only in this case, it’s Adam (Paul Rudd of TV’s Friends) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, About a Boy) who “meet cute” in a museum in front of a statue of God. It is significant that God, in this case, has been symbolically emasculated by society — who, offended by the too-realistic “shape” of his genitals, has slapped him with a fig leaf. Eve, sporting a Che Guevara T-shirt at one point, fancies herself a kind of artistic guerilla, and is determined to spray-paint a penis back on the statue — despite the presence of museum employee Adam, there to prevent any such thing.
But the nerdy, pudgy young man is so bewitched by Evelyn — and tantalized by the prospect of getting her phone number — that he’s easily led astray. From there, Evelyn induces him to lose weight, smarten up his wardrobe, get contact lenses, and even a nose job.
Adam’s friends are not at all sure what to make of the transformation or of Evelyn, which isn’t surprising — Evelyn is pretty disturbing, and the physical changes also bring about subtle psychological shifts in Adam.
He isn’t so thick, however, that he doesn’t wonder just what Evelyn sees in him — and that’s something he won’t find out till it’s too late. It’s all fascinating and disturbing, even if the revelation is one the viewer is apt to arrive at well before the characters.
For all that, though, it’s not entirely convincing, since it turns out to be as much a critique on art as an examination of relationships — a critique that smacks of a curious, possibly unconscious self-loathing on the part of La Bute. Also, the characters are less than three-dimensional, seeming instead to be little more than human stand-ins for ideas.
In a season that affords us such movies as 2 Fast 2 Furious, however, it’s almost refreshing enough that The Shape of Things simply has ideas. You likely won’t agree with all of them, but you’ll be forced to think about them.