“You stepped over the line.” Adam (Paul Rudd), a young, dull and spongy museum attendant, approaches a girl who has stepped over the red-velvet barrier to get closer to a statue of God. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) wants a better look at the plaster leaf some uptight force has placed over God’s very mortal marble member. Her radical act triggers an interchange between the two — heated when she threatens to use a can of paint to break through the lie that covers the artist’s original intent, then softened when she recognizes Adam from a video store. He had helped her find The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story in which all of a man’s wicked sins are captured in art. The meeting ends with a date planned and the “love” affair begins.
Although Evelyn tells Adam her MFA major is applied theory and criticism, it’s really the art of manipulation. One of the first things she says to him is, “You’re cute — I don’t like your hair.”
As the relationship blossoms, so do the changes to pretty-art-girl-smitten Adam. Soon friends notice he’s losing weight and that he’s putty in her hands.
After directing higher-profile Hollywood flicks like Possession and Nurse Betty, films in which he had little or nothing to do with the writing, Neil LaBute’s latest is more in line with his early efforts (Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men) that were infused with a David Mamet-ian cynicism, embracing the morally despicable, disheartening and intriguing elements of human nature. And even though this film is dialogue-driven, our attention is always wound deep inside its coiling philosophies.
It’s hard to believe, but LaBute seems to be getting even more insidious, maybe because he’s getting much more sophisticated with his attention to details (both obvious and not so obvious), twisting an old tale with a new take and his no-bones-about-it allusions to the creation myth. Eve — the giver of life — an artist and teacher, lures Adam, the hapless dope duped again, into a forbidden place over the line. Once Evelyn (wearing a T-shirt with a red apple on it) and Adam bond as they look behind God’s leaf, there’s no turning back.
As Adam, Rudd is so accomplished at uncoolness that it’s painful to watch, especially at those intimate moments. Next to Weisz’s dark-eyed, life-savvy Evelyn, his naive lack of sexual savoir faire seems more appropriate in the sandbox. Their contrast is disturbing and effective. And as Phillip, Adam’s longtime buddy, Fred Weller wields an astonishing, very entertaining mix of a “too cool for earth,” self-absorbed attitude and a genuine concern for Adam.
LaBute’s characters create a tight, interplaying weave that forces you to watch and judge for yourself. There’s a moment in the film when Evelyn is speaking directly to the camera: She’s speaking to her fine-art audience and LaBute is speaking directly to us when she says, “Only to indifference do I say ...” and then she flips us off.
Whatever you think about everyday manipulations, The Shape of Things will make you think twice before you “accidentally” throw out those hideous “clown” shorts your boyfriend loves to wear. As you leave the theater, this film will leave you wondering: Is art for people or are people merely vehicles for art? What evils are normal? And just when are you crossing the line? But there won’t be a doubt in your mind that betrayal is the quickest way to lose your innocence.
Showing exclusively at the Uptown Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S. of Maple). Call 248-644-3456.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].