Before stepping into a new Neil LaBute movie, one braces oneself the way abused puppies step into new homes. The surroundings look normal and pleasant enough, but the people are suspicious. Then turn frightening. Perhaps the filmmaker-playwright takes too much relish in rubbing our faces in the bile that builds between his characters - most of which aren't really characters but painfully tortured vessels for conveying some stilted, misanthropic world view. He's in touch with painful relationship truths, but drunk on spite.
At least that's the usual thing written about LaBute, and as dull as conventional wisdom sounds, it isn't lacking a good point. His characters intentionally represent ideas; his movies always feel intentionally like plays. His voice is distinct: You know it when you cringe at it.
I know people, guys mostly, who swear by LaBute; they regard his movies like action films with all the action removed and replaced with poison-tipped dialogue and toxic drama, fantasies of bad behavior enacted by people who could be them. The only visceral element that remains is a feeling: One of being slapped in the face before your friends and neighbors.
Gosh, that Neil LaBute makes the worst date movies.
His first, In the Company of Men (1997), shot in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he was a playwright teaching at St. Francis College, is set in a faceless city where two jerks dupe and dump a deaf woman. His next, Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), took on more garden-variety misogyny and cruelty. Two varieties of LaBute characters emerged: puppets and manipulators.
But his next two, Nurse Betty (2000) and Possession (2002), were mainstream movies, even kind of warm. And so it is with some uneasiness that one settles into his latest, The Shape of Things, based on his stage play and using the same four actors from the play (which, incidentally, was performed at the University of Toledo just this past school year).
In the early scenes we feel a relapse coming on. Because LaBute's first films play like savage rejoinders to the old saying that you can't be loved unless you open yourself up, we recognize something awful starting - and, again, it looks so harmless. Indeed, the first 10 minutes suggest the benign shape of a Nora Ephron comedy starring Meg Ryan as an eccentric charmer and Tom Hanks as dumpy schlub looking for love.
He wants us to want this.
Adam (Paul Rudd), the pudgy and rumpled security guard at an art museum on a sleepy liberal arts college campus, spots Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a sexy flake with smoky eyes. She is literally stepping over the line, hopping the rope to take Polaroids of a nude male statue.
She tilts her head, stares at the statue's strategically placed fig leaf, and explains to Adam that it was added later, by prissy community standards. She shakes up a can of spray paint.
He sees her point but begs her to stop. He's a college student with three jobs, he says. She says she's a graduate student working on an art “thingy.”
She also says he's cute.
But his haircut is awful.
From the start, you notice the words: It's that self-consciously stiff, bouncy dialogue of celebrated playwrights. In this case, spoken by actors who've, perhaps, said these lines on stage one too many times. (Listen for the volleying rhythms of David Mamet, one of LaBute's heroes.)
You'll notice every scene is a long conversation in which things are said but more is implied beneath their words. And you also spot something different about Adam: He gets subsequently leaner, more hip, more confident. The longer Evelyn and Adam date, the more Adam becomes a new Adam. He attracts the interest of an old crush, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), the sunny fiancee of Adam's jerk of a best friend, Philip (Frederick Weller).
Evelyn butts heads with Philip. But mostly everyone talks about each other and themselves. They also argue about art. Evelyn believes in the power of provocation; the others don't see her point; she can't see their point. These are not generous people with open minds or fluid opinions. But they flirt. Adam is tempted. (The symbolism is no accident; even the setting is a fictional California school named Mercy College.) And the question becomes: Is Adam responsible for his transformation, his new opinions, new look?
Or is something dark bubbling beneath?
It would be wrong to explain, except to say: You definitely remember the ending, one that doesn't betray the LaButian sense that the war of the sexes is actually a battleground of mutually assured destruction. It's also somewhat absurd in retrospect, but like the rest of the film, a highly effective art-house guilty pleasure, more shocker than thought-provoker.
(More interesting is a side topic LaBute skims across: how your feelings about culture can irrevocably alter a relationship.)
Weisz holds all this together single-handedly. She's charisma incarnate: devoted to art, perhaps beyond morality, and devoted to Adam. Part contempt, part intellect. It'd be too easy to say Evelyn is LaBute's surrogate. Rather she's the incarnation of all those unstable women in songs by Elvis Costello - who provides not only the soundtrack but good advice in the opening number: “Be on caution where lovers walk.”