Friday, November 13, 2009

The Shape Of Things (2003)

As I was trying to put this piece together I realized that it’s a hard film to suggest to people. Not in terms of its quality at all, just that it’s designed to be discussed after you’ve seen the complete picture. I figure that’s a big part of why so few people have heard of it or seen it. Its star, Paul Rudd, has been around and doing great work for a long time before his ties to the Apatow comedy mafia thrust him into the limelight again as a “rising star” (nearly 15 years after his breakout performance in “Clueless”). Prior to this recent career resurgence though he did his fair share of slumming in half-assed romantic comedies. So it’s easy to see why someone seeing the cover on the movie shelf, him with a dopey look next to a slinky and seductive looking Rachel Weisz (who is mostly known for her work in The Mummy films rather than her many prestige projects like The Fountain or her Oscar winning turn in The Constant Gardener) would think that this was a retread of Rudd’s lesser works (I shudder to even mention his time on screen with Jennifer Aniston in “The Object of My Affection”). While I do think it’s fair to say that he’s primarily a comedic actor (and a damn good one), Rudd has solid dramatic chops that are showcased here in Neil LaBute’s brilliant film adaptation of his own play “The Shape of Things”.

I was fortunate to have read about and caught LaBute’s debut film “In The Company of Men” many years ago. It was a funny, stunning and cruel story of seduction, manipulation and betrayal and was also the debut of an actor many of us have come to cherish in the years since, Aaron Eckhart (who has gone on to star in or have a cameo in nearly all of LaBute’s films). Sexual politics and damaged relationships seem to be his muse and while that’s not everyone’s favorite way to spend a Saturday night at the multiplex or in front of the tube, his films challenge you and provoke thought and conversation in a way that has grown increasingly rare in the cinema.

So, we meet a heavyset museum security guard and college student named Adam (Rudd) as he first encounters fellow student Evelyn (Weisz) who’s stepped over a rope barrier to take a picture of a statue during the end of his shift. She is immediately challenging and antagonistic toward him but in a way that’s clearly playful and intriguing to Adam. She explains that she wants to deface the statue because it’s “false art”. She points out a shoddy leaf that was added after the fact to cover up the statue’s “member” for being too life-like. There’s a palpable romantic/sexual tension between the two as we see the “opposites attract” theory in action. She’s an anarchist free spirit artsy type while he’s a rule follower (shit, he’s a rule enforcer as a security guard right?). He gets the nerve to ask her out for a date and you can see that for him he’s just incredibly grateful for the attention and we get the sense that for her, he’s someone she see’s great potential in and can push to come out of his shell. Let’s not forget though, this is not a romantic comedy!

We go on to meet the other two main characters in this story, Adam’s best friend Phil and Phil’s fiancée Jenny when Adam takes Evelyn over to their place to show off his new lady love. Evelyn causes an immediate rift between Adam and Phil as the conversation turns argumentative (over the same statue vandalism issue that set the story in motion) and she delivers a verbal lashing that takes Phil down several pegs and ends with her storming out (and insisting that Adam come with). You get a real sense of the shared history that Phil, Jenny and Adam have. It’s not just the interesting tidbits we learn about Adam’s past (painfully shy, couldn’t get a girl, etc.), it’s also just an ease and comfort in how they relate to each other. This, as I later learned, is no accident.

Fred Weller and Gretchen Mol (who play Phil and Jenny), along with Weisz and Rudd all are reprising their roles from the play which ran for several months in England back in 2001. As a general rule, I absolutely LOVE plays that are turned into films! Take a film like Glengarry Glenross (and many other David Mamet films). You have a movie with basically two sets (the office and the restaurant) and only 6 or 7 speaking parts and somehow it’s one of the most intense and engaging films I’ve ever seen. Just from talking! When the themes are so universal and powerful and the writing and performances are that strong, it knocks special effects on their ass every time! “The Shape of Things” is unique though in that these four actors had inhabited these roles on stage for months in front of an audience before transitioning to the movie (with very little break between). What a rare luxury to get to work on the physical aspects, the timing, all the subtleties and little character quirks that most actors complain only start to reveal themselves by the time they are wrapping up production. From what I understand, rehearsal time is very rare anymore for films, let alone 4 months putting it all out there for a crowd! I didn’t know all this going into the film but it was a “eureka” type moment to find out as it helped me understand (in part) why these characters seemed so uniquely real and lived-in.

Back to the story though, as Adam and Evelyn’s relationship grows she makes more and more suggestions on how he can improve himself, from throwing away his outdated (but favorite) jacket, to getting contacts instead of glasses, he loses weight, gets a new haircut, etc. He is all too eager to go along with it, much to the dismay of his long time friends Jenny and Phil. The question that I was faced with at this stage in the film was whether the perceived benefits of these changes (a relationship with an attractive woman, genuine improvements to one’s appearance and confidence, etc.) were acceptable in the face of them being guided by external rather than internal forces. Insecurity I suppose is an internal force and motivator in an unhealthy way but my point is that change should come from within or what is it really? I think it also raises an interesting question in terms of how you can claim to be in love with someone while trying to change everything about them (the implication being that the person they are is not good enough). There’s also an interesting conflict between Phil and Adam in terms of Phil always being the cooler, smoother ladies man type (including “stealing” Jenny from Adam in a way) and not liking the changes to the dynamic they had as friends. I don’t know what the term is for a love triangle between 4 people. A love square perhaps? Should it be a love quadrangle? In any case, this film has got a great one!

So, I do realize that what I’m describing here is not that compelling necessarily in terms of seeing the film. That’s because I want you to go in to it, as I did, without knowing the big picture of what’s going on. The surface level plot I’ve described is not what makes the film special obviously and the only other thing I want to say on the subject is that this film will reward repeat viewings (it absolutely insists that you watch it at least twice). It is worth noting by the way that the two main characters names are Adam and Evelyn (not a far cry from Adam and Eve right?) and that they first meet in front of a statue that's meant to represent god (not in an abstract way, they say in the movie that the statue is supposed to be god). I haven’t really figured out the connection yet but I don’t think for a second that it’s coincidence.

I think Neil LaBute is an exceptionally good writer and playwright. He’s one of those artists that trade off doing one film for money and one for himself. He has definitely made some solid but slightly hollow fare like the recent “Lakeview Terrace” or his remake of “The Wicker Man” (which everyone seems to hate but I enjoyed very much). The Shape of Things and Nurse Betty are probably my two favorites because they’re sort of in the middle, they function better as entertainment than his first two very harsh films (the aforementioned “In The Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors” both of which will probably end up on this blog one day) while still remaining true to his social themes and interests. Plus, Rachel Weisz is pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread (she’s up there with Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore and Carla Gugino in my own personal Talented Beauties Hall of Fame). So go see it, and then we can have the more fun discussion of what you thought about it after the fact! Grade: A+


  1. Intriguing! This does sound like one I need to get on the ol' TV. And, having never seen it, I copped on to the Adam and Eve connection fairly quickly seeing it in print... just in time to read your mention of it a paragraph or so down;). What's that saying about great minds... ?? Ha.

  2. Great play! Read it in college and thoroughly enjoyed the film as well. Interesting tid bit about how the actors came into the production of this... Keep up the good posts