Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2003 1:08 am 
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"Shape" shows La Bute back in form

Makeovers are a great idea. You may think you're a homely doofus, but you could become a stud in a matter of weeks. That's not actually meant to be the message of Neil La Bute's "The Shape of Things," but it is a truth that emerges when the nerdy hero, Adam (Paul Rudd, going thorough all his changes quite brilliantly) turns from a bespectacled lump into a lean, up to date sexy guy due to the manipulations of what he thought was his girlfriend (Evelyn, played by Rachel Welsz, who co-produced). It turns out that actually she sees him not as her boyfriend at all but as her triumphant art piece, the subject "thingy" of her MFA final project.

During their brief "romance," Adam loses twenty pounds, gets rid of his big ugly corduroy jacket, improves his hairstyle, replaces his glasses with contacts, and even has a nose job. Evelyn finally asks him to lose his best friend, macho bully Phillip (Fred Weller) and Phillip's fiancée Jenny (Gretchen Mol), but since the sexy new Adam has made moves on Jenny by then, Adam's relationship with Phillip is disintegrating already. All these changes come to seem more devastating than positive when Adam finds that Evelyn was just using him.

In her MFA show Evelyn goes on stage in front of Adam and Phillip and a bunch of other people at the school they both attend to unveil his transformation and document how coldly calculated it all was. As she sees it, she's an artist who works in human flesh, and she has successfully molded both Adam's body and his mind.

Adam has become not only cuter, but tougher, edgier, more willing to be bad. And, she tells the audience, she never forced him: it was all voluntary. The way La Bute resolves all this is that after the shocking public revelation Adam has a private scene in the gallery where he gets to be angry and defiant toward Evelyn. If the deaf girl in "In the Company of Men" had had the chance to yell obscenities in the faces of the male office workers who played their cruel joke on her, we'd have felt as good as we feel at the end of "The Shape of Things." La Bute is definitely back to his old form and his basic concerns, and he still ladles out generous helpings of shock and embarrassment, but this new take on sexual manipulation is both clearer and mellower. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" could be the moral. The cruelty, with no loss of edgy sexual comedy, comes to have a certain positive value: Adam may have lost the girl, but he still has his makeover.

"The Shape of Things," consists of a series of theatrically used locales (public place, bedroom, living room, bar, outdoors), and sometimes the dialogue sounds way too much like a play, which it originally was. La Bute's writing isn't naturalistic at all, but the stunned surprise he awakens in the audience here (just as he did in his first film and in "Your Friends and Neighbors") is real enough. Rudd is fascinating to watch. His goofiness early on is sort of cute, but it's so awkward it makes you squirm. Weisz's spouting of simplistic radical art positions isn't cute, but makes you equally uncomfortable. In the opening scene the two meet at the museum where Adam works as a guard. Evelyn is about to deface a big classical statue with a huge fig leaf over what clearly appears to be an oversized sculpted member. She's going to draw a big red penis with a can of spray paint. Adam moves over to stop her, but winds up asking her for a date and going off duty and leaving her to do what she wants. First, though, she spray paints her phone number inside his jacket. A couple of scenes later as the romance rapidly progresses he asks what she could see in him. Weisz succeeds in striking a balance, seeming affectionate at first, but not surprising us when it's all revealed to be a trick. This is managed by presenting Evelyn as a rather crude feminist who's also a budding, naively plucky "performance artist." In other words, she's as distanced as Adam is, perhaps more so, since she does not become more attractive and he does. La Bute does not trade in audience identification.

Nonetheless it's likely that women will sympathize with the lady who one by one wipes out her boyfriend's defects, whereas men will sympathize with Adam's anger and defiance at the end, and the fact that his ordeal does increase his desirability.

Right away the pair have lots of "DPA's" (Displays of Public Affection), and they seem an oddly cute young couple. Rudd is absurdly cuddly and foolish in bed with Weisz in their bedroom scene.

Next comes contact with Phillip, Rudd's best friend and former roommate, who's a macho bully and bore. Phillip is scheduled to marry Jenny, who Rudd always lusted after during his total nerd days when he often was too shy even to date a girl he liked. Phillip is an over the top creep, but he has the smooth finish of a frat man about him. This is set at a beautiful, idyllic California college, but the shock value of La Bute's writing still always has the edge of a liberal Morman's outlook. What a thrill would it be if all this happened in Salt Lake City, but it would just be mildly out of tune in Santa Barbara.

Weisz does a very workmanlike job. She is strong and composed, believable in her role of Machiavellian molder. But it's Rudd who is the most fun to watch. He's an actor experienced in romantic comedy (and at being cute), but he blossoms in developing from nerd to cool guy. This is vintage La Bute. There's no doubt that "Nurse Betty" was a charming fantasy about a naïve deluded dreamer (Renée Zellweger is an American female Don Quixote), but "Possession" went astray into a meaningless Merchant/Ivory-land quite foreign to La Bute's real interests. He's not only back on track here but -- as if he's blended in the sweetness of "Nurse Betty" with the bitter satire of his first two films -- he has made his reality sandwich more digestible.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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