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The Shape of Things is a film with a twist, and in the past, readers have appreciated the warning. If you like your surprises intact, don’t read this review or any other until you’ve seen (or decided not to see) the movie.

Director Neil LaBute broke into the movies with a portrait of emotional cruelty called In the Company of Men, in which two men conspire to romantically devastate a woman. Six years and four movies later, LaBute shows us the other side of the same coin, in The Shape of Things.

Genesis

Plastic surgery makes Adam a better man
Plastic surgery makes Adam a better man

The movie opens at the museum where Adam (Paul Rudd) works. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) has just stepped across the red velvet rope and threatens to deface a statue. Her beef is that the statue has already been defaced by prudes who covered the statue’s penis with a fig leaf — she says they thought sex organs were just too human for something that represented the divine. Adam, of course, is supposed to talk her out of her vandalism, but someone as meek as him is doomed to fail.

Their museum encounter is the genesis of their relationship. They manage to make a workable, if imperfect, couple. On their first date they go see a play (Medea) with Adam’s friends Philip and Jenny (Fred Weller and Gretchen Mol). Afterwards, Philip and Evelyn get into a heated argument about the motives of the unknown person who spray-painted a penis on the statue. During their fight, Adam is caught between his best friend and his new girlfriend, as he will be through much of the film.

Born Again

Most of the film is about Adam’s transformation. Evelyn proves to be a good influence on him. He loses weight, gets a better haircut, gets some new clothes. He even becomes more confident, more outgoing.

But Philip and Jenny, engaged these past months, hit a rocky patch. Jenny doesn’t quite trust him. Since Adam is an old, dear friend, she asks to meet him at a park to talk about Philip. But with her own uncertainty about her upcoming marriage, Adam’s newfound handsomeness, and their mutual regret at never having dated, they end up cheating on their partners. Perhaps it’s “only” a kiss, but they have sinned in their hearts.

More friction develops. It appears Phil and Evelyn may have “done” something too. On top of it all, Evelyn gets strangely more distant, more demanding, even suggesting that Adam get plastic surgery. She seems very unlike the arty, carefree type we met at the beginning.

Revelation

An important revelation comes at the movie’s climax. Followers of LaBute will have seen it coming, like two trains speeding toward each other on the same track. We watch in anticipation of the emotional trainwreck LaBute has carefully planned, staged, and set in motion.

Roller Coaster

The Shape of Things is such an effective emotional roller coaster that its flaws seem diminished. Nevertheless, there are some key unconvincing moments.

Adam, for example, is a believable character later in the film, but when we first meet him he is a nerdy stereotype. He doesn’t feel like a real person, and therefore it’s hard to imagine Evelyn becoming involved with him.

In fact, the whole opening scene in the museum feels emotionally and viscerally unconvincing, in spite of its intellectual richness in meaning and metaphor.

On the other hand, some of the movie’s strongest scenes are emotionally on-target. The long scene in the park between Adam and Jenny is a very well-observed, well-acted portrait of emotions and impulses overriding will and judgment. If he weren’t a dramatist, LaBute would have made a good anthropologist, observing and recording human behavior.

In the Company of Women

Sometimes human behavior runs toward the cruel and evil, and LaBute records that too. That means The Shape of Things may not be for all audiences. LaBute has a dark streak in him a mile wide. His humor is so black it’s not clear whether it’s even humor.

But the ensemble gives great performances all around (except for the early Adam, unfortunately), and they are directed by a man with an eye for human behavior. So if you take a chance on this movie, you’re likely not to be disappointed.

If you’ve seen In the Company of Men, you should also see The Shape of Things; it’s an apt companion piece.