The Shape of Things (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

This version of Neil LaBute's ongoing project is crisp and aggressive, occasionally alienating or annoying, that is, effectively unlike other movies.

The Shape of Things

Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, Fred Weller
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus Features
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-05-09

Adam (Paul Rudd) first spots Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) as she steps over the rope around a Renaissance statue. This takes place in the Mercy College museum, where Adam, a rumpled, rules-abiding English undergrad, is working security. Concerned about his job, if not the statue per se, he asks her what she's doing. She pulls out a spray paint can and shakes it. "Truthfully," Evelyn says, "I'm gonna deface the statue." Adam looks stricken. "Is that paint?"

Poor Adam spends much of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things looking like this, behind whatever action is in progress. In this instance, he gathers up his nerve and asks for her number; as neither of them has a pen, she grabs his shabby corduroy jacket and spray-paints her number in it. Adam stands by, not exactly protesting and vaguely giddy in the face of her sexy audacity.

And so, the romantic fiction begins. At first, it seems a bit of standard, and frankly boring, "opposites attract" business: Adam's unkempt hair and corny glasses make him a most unlikely match for Evelyn, an outspoken MFA student, particular about her funky thrift-store look and chopsticks in her hair. Still, she deems him "cute," even as she also declares her aversion to his hair.

If you don't notice this first clue that their romance will not be going quite like other college romances, you'll not miss the next one, in the scene directly following the museum encounter. The new couple, still giddy in each other's presence, are waiting to go see a campus production of Medea (her choice). At this point, you're coming in cold, having seen none of the lead-up to their mutually adoring coupledom: no first date, no decision-making, no transition from museum to Medea. This jump establishes the film's structure (it's based on LaBute's play): it's jittery and episodic, offering only snapshots rather than evolution.

Adam is now, Evelyn notes, looking "fit." Indeed, he's started a jogging regimen. Pleased, she asks what he "wants." He stammers, "Any moment I can get with you, that's what I'd like." Okay, Mr. Silver-tongue, see what you think of this: she kisses him and he panics, sputtering, by way of explanation, "PDA!" (Plainly, this doesn't concern Ms. Spray Paint.) Now Adam frets, wondering how come she won't tell him more about herself. When she demurs from answering questions, he resorts to what has been, pre-Evelyn, a useful self-defense, self-deprecation: "Why do you like me?" he asks. "I'm not anything."

While this is, probably and sadly, true, Evelyn doesn't appreciate whining. And so, she takes this opportunity to put Adam in his place, a place that she defines and circumscribes. She growls and grimaces, chastising his "fucking insecurities," which she reframes as his lack of faith in her judgment. Tables turned, Adam now feels badly for Evelyn. He takes her at her word, never a good idea in a Neil LaBute movie; put another way, as the director tells IFCRant magazine (May/June 03), "My work often works on the level of 'everything is not as it seems.'"

Indeed. Adam, however, doesn't know that, and so he bumbles onward, wanting to be what he seems, agreeing to view himself differently, essentially, through her eyes. From here, their relationship turns curiouser, in increments. Adam, apparently already revved up by the jogging, takes action. He starts wearing contacts, changes his hair, trades in his unfashionable corduroy jacket for a preppie windbreaker, even aggress to a nose job, which he explains to friends as the result of a tumble down the stairs.

These friends are introduced at the end of a double date (again, the scene begins and ends without context) with Adam and Evelyn, as Philip (Fred Weller) and his fiancée (and Adam's longtime crush), Jenny (Gretchen Mol). The evening quickly devolves into name-calling between supercilious Philip (who is the less clever, less brutal version of Aaron Eckhart's big meanie in In the Company of Men and definitively intense Evelyn when they begin arguing over distinctions and correlations between art and politics. When she stomps off, Adam has to make a choice.

You'll have to make one too. Or rather, several, as The Shape of Things appears to lay out moral, political, and aesthetic options, embodied by characters but also refused by them (as much as these bits of text might refuse anything). Initially, you might think your choice has to do with identification -- with the progressively pushy Evelyn or the increasingly self-possessed Adam. But your choice is repeatedly shaped and reshaped, as you're faced with the film's manipulations (some unsubtle and others quite cunning), pointed observations, and high contrasts.

This sort of challenge to habits of reading (in particular, assumptions that you know what's happening from scene to scene) is familiar ground for LaBute. His films famously undermine (romantic, comedic, dramatic) conventions even as they appear to offer them up, the ostensibly lush Possession no less than the obviously mordant Your Friends and Neighbors. Such continuity (or revisiting) of themes is not so simple as it might appear, however. Some viewers have called The Shape of Things an inversion of In the Company of Men, in which the girl plays duplicitous abuser. It's true Evelyn schemes more explicitly than Adam (he does scheme, just less proudly). But this reading obscures the details, the ways that duplicity is nuanced. Evelyn and Adam's relationship -- in particular the demands each makes of the other, whether knowingly or in seeming ignorance -- leads to betrayal, pain, and vengeance, the very sort of ugliness that characterizes "normal" relationships as well as those made spectacular in movies or reality tv.

Here, the exercise and interrogation of artifice for which the filmmaker is so well known fold into themselves: Evelyn's art is more overtly calculated than Adam's, but they both play one another, and themselves, hard. Though Adam would argue the point, she is, after all, "truthful," as she first announces herself. She does "deface," and doesn't claim a moral right to do so, only an artistic one. The question is, (how) do these realms diverge?

For Evelyn's Final Thesis Project installation, the wall reads, "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." The line might be read as an indictment of those who attribute moral lessons to art, a number including both LaBute's critics and admirers. And it might also be understood as a more complex, less judgmental, question. How is it that judgment emerges in and as art, in and as relationships, in and as duplicity as much as honesty? How is it that right and righteousness can be claimed, by an individual, much less a culture, or community, or nation? Or, somewhat more simply, can there be a moral bottom line?

This version of LaBute's ongoing project is crisp and aggressive, occasionally alienating or annoying, that is, effectively unlike other movies. That it is, in the end, so difficult to sympathize with any character is disturbing, but also appropriate for a movie more interested in confronting your expectations than cozying up to them.

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