- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

There Neil LaBute goes again. The cinematic provocateur behind “In the Company of Men” (1997) and “Your Friends & Neighbors” (1998) is in misanthropic form once more with “The Shape of Things,” the film version of his 2001 play of the same name.

What’s different this time is that darkness is mostly all there is.

The film’s stage origins are as apparent as a bottle blonde’s dark roots, and Mr. LaBute and cinematographer James L. Carter do little to invigorate the proceedings.

Audiences don’t plunk down money to see Mr. LaBute’s sweeping vistas. They want emotional fireworks, and “Shape” delivers, particularly during its corrosive final reel, which just goes to show that uncompromising auteurs do their own form of audience pandering, even if it masquerades as psychological “realism.”

Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and Adam (Paul Rudd), a mismatched pair of college students, “meet cute,” independent-film-style. She is about to deface a statue because someone covered its genitalia with a stone fig leaf. Art should be pure and uncensored, she argues. Adam is the museum’s part-time security guard charged with stopping her.

He doesn’t. The two become a twosome.

If Evelyn’s morality is suspect from the start, Adam is too smitten to care. He passively does as she commands — sheds weight, loses the glasses, updates the antiquated wardrobe.

She clearly has the upper hand in the relationship and has no qualms about flexing her power.

Adam’s pals, Philip and his fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), notice the changes in their friend.

The two couples’ first meeting turns disastrous. Complicating matters is that Jenny once harbored a crush on Adam. Now, with Adam’s knotty hair neatly shorn and his extra pounds jogged away, that attraction smolders.

The interpersonal forces slowly build until the film’s calamitous finale.

Once again, Mr. LaBute wields his bitter view of love like a cudgel, but the lack of depth between characters muffles each blow.

The characters appear far more callow than college students on the verge of adulthood. Jenny and Philip’s pairing makes little sense, and the duo aren’t on-screen long enough for us to suss out their connection.

More damning is the flimsy bond between Adam and Philip. We can’t lament their rift if we never see them as the chums we’re told they are.

The film’s actors come directly from the British stage, where Mr. LaBute debuted the source material. Miss Weisz fares best, her beauty mooting her character’s questionable moral stands.

Fred Weller is the Everyman college buddy, but he remains a type, never evolving into a character. Mr. Rudd’s nebbishy Adam is a trickier construct, one in which the actor’s craft occasionally peeks through.

“Shape” is many things, one of them being a lousy date movie. It also appoints itself arbiter of art and how we approach it, but it does so with a ham-handedness unworthy of the talented writer-director.

Mr. LaBute’s rebellious spirit and ear for compelling dialogue haven’t abandoned him. Even his lesser efforts are worth our time. Few filmmakers stake so much on the spoken word. But he risks falling into the same creative rut as Todd Solondz (1998’s “Happiness,” 2001’s “Storytelling”) — becoming a tiresomely bleak commentator on modern mores.

Driven with snippets of Elvis Costello tunes — what better balladeer for a complex romance — “The Shape of Things” doesn’t take great advantage of the medium. Nor does it tap Mr. LaBute’s usually sure, unsentimental grasp of human nature. Instead, it’s the dramatic equivalent of a long “Twilight Zone” episode, with a scoop of “big questions” meant to keep us off balance.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Shape of Things”

RATING: R (Sexual situations, strong language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Neil LaBute, based on his play.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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