Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things tells the story of Adam and Evelyn, and already the tacky Biblical symbolism begins. (LaBute doesn’t make much of it; neither shall I.) The young lovers meet in an art museum as Evelyn, a twenty-nothing armed with a can of spray paint, advances to deface a Greek statue. Adam, a pasty, goony security guard with undulating double chins, rushes to defend Art, and instead finds himself smitten by the vandal-to-be.
From the moment of this charmless, inauspicious encounter, the two spout stilted, stage-cadenced dialogue that practically flashes off-Broadway neon. Evelyn, who identifies herself as an MFA candidate, utters puffy, pouty, little-girl profundities such as “I don’t like art that isn’t true,” and Adam—so unseasoned with women that he’s oblivious to what an insufferable witch she is—falls prey to her bulldozer charms. Before long, Evelyn has talked Adam into a new haircut, a new diet, a new wardrobe. She videotapes their sex life and instructs him to smile for the camera. Emboldened and overjoyed, he does.
LaBute adapted his own play; the actors reprise their roles from the stage production, but no one thought to structure the material in a way that makes dramatic sense. Two inescapable problems kill the movie. One, after Adam changes his hair (slightly), slims down, and trades eyeglasses for contact lenses, he’s supposed to have become “hot,” irresistible to women. Only as Paul Rudd personifies the role, Adam is as much of a dweeb after as before. Two, we’re expected to believe that Adam’s new look causes consternation among his old chums Philip and Jenny. Why should it? Philip, a pretty-boy jock who might have sprung fully formed from an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, seems too much like the sort of bruiser who would encourage his buddy’s surface conversion. Therefore, these prolonged objection scenes that LaBute requires of his actors, verbal battles that turn physical, are completely muddled. If Philip were as nebbishy nerdy as Adam, then it might be plausible that he feels betrayed by his friend’s change in appearance, and there would be some real pain in the friendship’s loss, as opposed to the photogenic tussle that LaBute choreographs on the campus lawn.
Rachel Weisz, as Evelyn, makes for such a piffling belle dame that when Adam swoons, “You amaze me,” we have no idea what he’s talking about. LaBute might as well have made her a gorgon in the style of Karen Finley. I doubt whether even that could have revved-up the “life as art” climactic scene—where Evelyn presents Adam’s transformation as her Master’s thesis—but at least we might have enjoyed a good parody of all the moral outrage and indignation that LaBute longs to splash everywhere. About the best we get is when Evelyn croaks in her defense, “There is only art.” True, there is only art. But this movie, most assuredly, isn’t. — NPT
May 14, 2003