Neil LaBute starts his latest film, THE SHAPE OF THINGS, off with a sly dig at what the story is going to be about. His stars are not given character names in the credits, they’re listed as “actress” or “actor” in much the same way that credits traditionally list “director” or “writer”, both of which LaBute is here. This is artifice, and mannered at that, make no mistake. He then gives us a conversation between Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz that obliquely tells us everything we need to know about what will unfold.
Weisz is a comely bohemian of a graduate art student. Rudd is a yutz of an undergrad earning some extra bucks as a museum security guard. Their paths cross when Weisz crosses a line in front of a Renaissance statue and prepares to deface it with some spray paint. Well, not the whole statue, just the strategically placed plaster fig leaf that was added later to satisfy some conservative art lovers. The leaf, Weisz calmly explains as she shakes the can in preparation for the deed, is not part of statue. It’s artifice, hence intrinsically offensive, and badly placed at that. You can still see the shape of his thing. A tidy little play on the title of the film, and not the only one.
Rudd, for his part, is far more concerned about not having to fill out the paperwork her protest would cause. He’s also more interested in getting a date with her, which he does. And as in all good stories about the yutz and the bohemian, his vistas open up in ways he never expected. With her encouragement, he gets a new hair cut, a new wardrobe, loses a few pounds, and even contemplates a nose job. All this turns him from dowdy to dynamite which ignites a spark with his good friend, Gretchen Mol, for whom he once had a secret hankering but who is, unfortunately, engaged to his very best friend in the world (Fred Weller). Rudd’s blossoming somehow infuriates that best friend, a not so latent misogynist who rather liked being the duo’s hunk, not to mention nailing Rudds secret crush.
Weisz is sharp and cool as the artist, whether bucking up her guy’s ego or expanding his horizons sartorially or sexually. Weisz herself flickers with intelligence the way a lightning rod does. Rudd makes a convincing change to cutie-pie while still carrying around the soul of his yutz past, not to mention his very tender heart on his newly stylish sleeve. Mol exudes the sort of wholesome sensuality of a milk maid. She’s a real looker with the self-esteem of a door mat, the which has made her easy pickings for Rudd’s pal, who has a big mouth, bigger ego and his own esteem issues. Weller brings the right amount of self-righteous sleaze the part, making him not so much a caricature as a symptom of a self-indulgent, self-absorbed society that can’t see beyond its designer sunglasses.
LaBute uses these four characters to dissect human interaction in ways that are cathartic and chilling. His is a milieu red in tooth and claw, where even the clever can be left with a few scars, and where the innocent are just so much fodder for the buzz saw of Darwinism.
By the end the definitions of art, artifice, truth and violation are up for grabs, not to mention love, friendship and good intentions. How much of real or reel life can >be< real and how much must of necessity be subjective? And how should we feel about this (yet another subjective trap, or is it?). The only direct answer LaBute gives is to have one of his characters look directly into the camera and say that the only offensive reaction to art (read film) is indifference and then flip us the bird with both fingers. It might also apply to Labute’s attitude towards the critical reaction he’s received for his auteur films, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS. People either loved or hated them and that depth of polarized passion seems to please LaBute no end. As far as he’s concerned, he’s doing something right and I couldn’t agree more.