Shape Shifter

Neil LaBute is back to his old self again, and the cinematic world is a better place for it.

Honestly, what was he thinking when he made Possession? Did the charges of misogyny lingering from In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors get to him so much that he felt he had to do a weepy chick flick? Nurse Betty was decent, but it came to life only when it focused less on the title character than on Morgan Freeman’s apparent antagonist. That should’ve been a hint that everyone’s favorite in-your-face liberal Mormon doesn’t fare so well telling women’s stories — or at least isn’t well-suited to telling other writers’ stories.

It’s a bitch to write about The Shape of Things, because LaBute, even more here than before, relies on shock. The climax virtually stabs a knife into your chest, and the coda twists the bare bodkin even further. Notice the use of the Shakespearean “bare bodkin” in the previous sentence? Good, because I’m making a point in none-too-subtle LaBute-like fashion. It’s a running gag in The Shape of Things that ostensible protagonist Adam (Paul Rudd) makes classical literary references that his girlfriend, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), doesn’t catch. Compounding the point, LaBute drops some visual references in the background to Medea and Hedda Gabler to rub in the notion that women can be psycho and to prove that he’s read about it. You would hope that an auteur on his fifth movie would transcend such dime-store “symbolism.”

It’s a fun flick otherwise. The mere idea that the title refers to the actual build of male genitalia should tell you where the film’s headed. Adam, an impotent watchman at a college art museum, meets Evelyn as she’s planning to desecrate a statue. Speaking in stagy repartee, they recognize love — or possibly just lust — at first sight.

Except that she hates his hair. Being a nerd who seldom gets any action, Adam naturally fixes his coif ASAP. But that’s just the beginning. Weight loss, diet change, rifts with friends and even a nose job lie ahead, engineered through gradual manipulation by the intensely passionate Evelyn, who convinces Adam that it’s all his idea. Most guys change at least a little when they’re in a relationship, but LaBute characters tend to be archetypes who take things to an extreme. They don’t disappoint here.

To say much more about the film’s details would spoil it. But once again, LaBute pushes past the boundaries of acceptable behavior and forces his audience to pass judgment. Those who have dismissed him as amoral miss the point completely. Some will learn the wrong lesson (an acquaintance of mine came out of In the Company of Men hailing its despicable woman-hater as a new hero, and a few women are sure to adore Evelyn), but most will at least be talking afterward. That’s one sign of a memorable movie, whether you liked it or not.

Categories: Movies