CAPSULE: THE SHAPE OF THINGS (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Neil LaBute

FEATURING: , , , Frederick Weller

PLOT: A nerdy security guard falls for an anarchic art student; she encourages him to change his appearance and dress, increasing his self-confidence—but is she really good for him?

Still from The Shape of Things (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Neil LaBute’s pitch black adaptation of his own play falls into the category of “outside-the-box indie drama” rather than “weird.”

COMMENTS: On the surface, The Shape of Things appears to be about the lengths someone will go to change themselves to gain someone else’s approval. Evelyn transforms Adam from schlub to stud, but the changes to his body inevitably effect his mentality. But although the erotically-motivated malleability of the less confident romantic partner is one of the work’s themes, Shape reveals a different, more controversial, focus in the third act. The ending twist is easy to guess, particularly to anyone who has seen LaBute’s debut film (the venomous dissection of masculine manipulation In the Company of Men). But I was willing to forgive the obviousness, because I think that LaBute’s fundamental point—an attack on attitudes and platitudes prevalent in the postmodern art scene (Evelyn, the film’s antagonist, is the kind of artist who believes in spray painting classical sculptures as a “statement”)—needed to be said.

The Shape of Things‘s origins as a stage play are obvious—each transition might as well be preceded by intertitles of the format “Act 2, Scene 3”—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What it really means that this is an actor’s and writer’s movie; everything is built around dialogue, which is often very sharp, with only a couple of set changes. Each of the four characters gets at least one big scene with the other three: Adam and Evelyn, obviously, spend the most time together, but the male lead must also defend himself from a “you’ve changed, man” speech from bro Phillip and navigate a moment of awkwardness with his best friend’s girl, while Evelyn gets to argue with douchey Phillip about the nature of art and to confront Jenny about her supposed attraction to the new and improved Adam. The fact that each of the actors had played these characters on stage for a year beforehand inevitably helps their chemistry—the characters are a artificial, written as types to support a thesis, but the young foursome does everything possible to make them feel like real people.

LaBute is often accused of being misanthropic (or even misogynistic), but, like all satirists, he’s actually humanistic. It shocks me that so many critics and viewers come to the exact opposite conclusion—I guess they conclude that no writer could pen scenes of emotional sadism so convincingly without being a psychopath themselves. It seems obvious to me that LaBute shows us extreme cruelty not to titillate us, but to arouse our disgust—to encourage us to try to be better people. And, to encourage his peers to become better, more morally focused artists.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This version of Neil LaBute’s ongoing project is crisp and aggressive, occasionally alienating or annoying, that is, effectively unlike other movies.”–Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “noa.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: THE SHAPE OF THINGS (2003)”

  1. I’ve been curious about this one for a while because it has that power couple at the center plus art/art history-related things! But I can’t tell if I’ll actually like it. Will have to see for myself I suppose.

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