Thursday, October 17, 2013

Film Review: The Shape of Things

The Shape of Things (2003)
Written and Directed by Neil LaBute

Last night I had the first of many movie nights with a couple of my friends. I got to make the first choice of what movie to watch and I chose LaBute's film adaptation of his own play The Shape of Things. The story is a classic LaBute tale about the dangers and pratfalls of relationships. Adam (Paul Rudd) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) meet cute at the museum where he works. Allow me to take this opportunity to point out how much I love the Adam and Eve elements of this story, and the play on their names works well. She's a grad student at the local college they both attend working on her Art Thesis, and he's an aimless undergrad, so of course the two start dating. What follows is a treatise on the manner in which two people in love with one another work to change each other and themselves in an attempt to be perfect.

I love this story, but I don't necessarily believe it's the best movie. The storytelling lacks subtlety and finesse. At times the characters feel less like people and more like talking heads concerned with conveying the grander elements of LaBute's point. But that's to take nothing away from the performances of Rudd and Weisz which carry the film through some of it's more awkwardly pedantic moments. The same cannot be said for co-stars Gretchen Mol and Fredrick Weller, but their characters exist to serve a very specific purpose and little more.

What works about the story is that LaBute's hyperbole is still highly entertaining and the message he's working so hard to get across is important and fascinating. The story not only brings up interesting issues about adult relationships, but it also has a lot to say about the nature of Art and the responsibilities/moral code of the artist.

Sometimes the method of the storytelling can be flawed. The dialogue, while fast and furious, is pedantic and more message based than character based. There are times when the film feels static as it tries to maintain the general feel it had on the stage. One of the elements of adaptation is that you can usually break free of some of the shackles imposed by the original medium, but LaBute seems more interested in maintaing the spacial integrity of the original work than making changes to suit the new medium. It's not a bad choice to make, per se, but it can leave you with a feeling that you're watching a play with better sets than an actual movie. But in spite of the flaws in the storytelling, when a story is strong, the experience of engaging with it will be entertaining and fulfilling. Such is the case with this film by one of my favorite contemporary minds.


  1. I love Neil LaBute. I've loved him since In The Company of Men. I remember when I saw it in high school. I rented it, and watched it without my mother knowing...until she came home early. She saw the last 15 minutes and had a conniption. She thought it was the most vile piece of trash she had ever seen. It was brilliant. You'd think I was watching a porno, or a snuff film.

    The thing is, all of Neil LaBute's plays are soul-burners. I love his plays. And, he can direct plays well. They're all really maximized for confrontation and mental abuse of the audience. Take how he had Fat Pig staged on Broadway. He started it by having the actress eat a whole pizza with no other action. Just eating a pizza. for 10 minutes. He's confronting the audience with their size phobia or defensiveness, and it is amazing and raw.

    That said, he normally gives one, maybe two, characters real humanity, and the rest are tools for his mind games. In In The Company of Men, it was Howard. In Your Friends and Neighbors, there was...well...nobody. In Fat Pig, it was Helen, the titular character. In The Shape of Things, it was Adam. And, his plays work so well.

    However, his immense talent on stage is only reflected by his ineptitude in film. His direction is downright awful. His camerawork is always pedestrian, and it always seems like an after thought. It worked in In The Company of Men because he was doing a whole fly on the wall style. But, by The Wicker Man, oh it really is glaring how uncomfortable he is behind the camera.

    But, LaBute movies of LaBute plays will always be watchable, because he knows what he wants his characters to be. He just needs to remain with the actors and have a second director do the cinematography and editing. All of his movies would be so vastly improved. Well, except The Wicker Man.

    1. I like his plays a lot more than I do his films. And in the interest of full disclosure, I saw The Shape of Things on the stage before I did on the screen. I can criticize his directing here because objectively it isn't "good film making," but I do understand it as an adaptation choice on this one.

      Where I will disagree with you is on the point about Adam's humanity. This was actually a major point of contention during the discussion my friends and I had after the viewing. I think that Shape of Things, like Friends and Neighbors, lacks the basic sympathetic human character. I think Adam *could* have been that if LaBute weren't also trying to make the point that "hot people are shit." Once Adam starts getting sexy and flirting with other girls and fucking his friend's fiance at the beach (sorry, but I refuse to believe they didn't have sex), all of his potential for "moral center of the group" flies out the window. One of the things I love about this story is that I hate each and every single one of the character LaBute presents us with. And that's a real feat on his part. He works audience manipulation exceptionally well. I liked both Evelyn and Adam at first and then slowly grew to hate them both as the story progressed (Evelyn more quickly than Adam of course). So this is another of his "everyone sucks" stories.

      If you can't find them being staged, you should read his plays The Mercy Seat and Bash (a collection of 3 one acts) and you'll get more of his "everyone sucks" outlook. They're also really really good.