In The Shape of Things (Focus Features), Neil LaBute rehashes the motifs that made his abrasive breakthrough, In the Company of Men (1997), and its even more toxic follow-up, Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), the all-time-champion worst dating movies. This one, based on his own four-character play, isn’t as much of a battering ram: For a while, LaBute attempts to seduce you into thinking you’re watching a modern—if somewhat stark—screwball comedy. But it isn’t long before you start to steel yourself for the inevitable revelation of man’s (or woman’s) inhumanity to man (or woman). After all, what other reason does a Neil Labute movie have for being?
The Shape of Things has a tidy shape: It’s a series of mostly two-character scenes with bits of ominous Elvis Costello songs in between them—their lyrics like curare-dipped projectiles. In the opening, the pudgy, bespectacled Adam (Paul Rudd), a security guard at a college art museum, watches Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a gorgeous, flaky graduate student, prepare to deface a statue with a can of spray paint. The sculptor had been forced to cover the genitalia with a fig leaf, which upsets Evelyn’s sense of aesthetic truth: Covering the statue with obscene graffiti is her idea of performance art. Adam tells her to cease and desist but doesn’t work too hard to stop her. She might be a twittery weirdo with sociopathic tendencies, but she says he’s cute—and this is the closest he has come to a romantic encounter in years.
From the first scene you’ll notice that this sounds like a theater piece, with the arch, ping-pong exchanges that pass for human interaction in the world of showoff playwrights. (And Rudd did this part too many times on stage: He can’t make his lines sound as if they’re coming from his head.) LaBute has also come up with a highly theatrical conceit: In each subsequent scene, Adam is a little leaner, a little handsomer, a little more confident. Evelyn has him dieting, throwing out his dorky old clothes and glasses, even surgically fixing the tip of his nose. As their relationship blooms, he becomes a new man. He even begins to attract Jenny (Gretchen Mol), the straight-laced blond fiancee of his handsome but boorish best friend, Philip (Frederick Weller).
Is LaBute really making a movie about an uptight nerd who’s charmingly opened up by a free spirit? No, it can’t be—there has to be some higher malevolence. Either the newly empowered Adam is going to run roughshod over the clutchy Evelyn (perhaps by taking up with Jennifer), or the enigmatic Evelyn has some ulterior motive for seducing Adam. One clue to the movie’s moral universe is the names Adam and Evelyn; another is a couple of Hedda Gabler references. The hints are all there, but nothing can quite prepare you for the melodramatic outlandishness of the last two scenes.
As Evelyn, Weisz (who co-produced the movie) is intense enough to make me wonder what she could do with Hedda, one of the most complex monsters ever written for the stage. It’s worth lingering on Ibsen’s heroine: The imperious daughter of an aristocratic general, Hedda is both a titanic egotist and a victim of her era’s subjugation of women—a “perfect storm” antagonist. Evelyn, by contrast, is the essence of motiveless malignity, spouting ideas about art and morality that might strike the Marquis de Sade as a tad over the top. LaBute’s climactic insight about “the shape of things” is supposed to be blinding in its candor, but it sounded weirdly off the subject to me. The real story here is LaBute’s peculiar inner world.
In LaBute’s movies, people are either clueless dupes or psychotic manipulators, while art is meant to rub your face in unpleasant “truths.” And I think he takes a little too much pleasure in that nose-rubbing, which might be why some critics (and a lot of women I know) called him a “misogynist” for In the Company of Men—ostensibly an attack on misogyny: It was like watching a puppy tortured for 90 minutes. The Shape of Things is more straightforward in its fear of women—and in its belief that opening oneself up to anyone is a sure recipe for getting clobbered.
LaBute often cites the Mike Nichols/Jules Feiffer movie Carnal Knowledge (1971)—in which a loutish Jack Nicholson attempts to teach Art Gurfunkel how to exploit a series of mostly dull-witted women—as a seminal influence. I can imagine him seeing it at an impressionable age and exclaiming, “That’s it! That’s what great art can do: show us the ugly truth about human relationships!” I can’t help wondering, though, if this revelation had been preceded by any, um, hands-on experience. It seems more likely that LaBute spent a lot of time alone in his college dorm room listening to Elvis Costello sing things like, “He said, ‘I’m so happy I could die’/ She said ‘drop dead’ then left with another guy!” and going, “Yeah! That’s what women are made of!” I’d say he needs to meet a nice girl—but I’m not sure any nice girls need to meet him.
Addendum, 5/12/03: A number of readers have written to say that Neil LaBute is married (to a therapist) with children. I knew that; I was just riffing on his angry-geek posture. (Elvis Costello was married with a child when he wrote his first two albums worth of songs, but he wrote from the perspective of a wounded adolescent male confronting the unknowable Other.) As other readers have pointed out, LaBute is a Mormon—a convert, in fact—with strong views about the perils of free sex. As reader Quinn Eastman suggests, “I think he’s expressing his contempt for all the non-(religious+conservative) single pathetic dating people out there.” Well put.
I also got a note from LaBute himself, thanking me for my thoughtful and incisive criticism. This seems a peculiar response but is in any case a highly effective psych-out.