Part moralist and (large) part misanthrope, playwright-screenwriter-director Neil LaBute caused a stir with his first two films - In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors - primarily because of their unadulterated nastiness and decidedly uncharitable view of human nature. What some carping critics at the time refused to recognize was that those two films were about ideas, albeit unpleasant ones, and language as much as they were about plot.
After making the misguided mainstream films Nurse Betty and Possession, LaBute returns to the nastiness that first made his name with the thought-provoking The Shape of Things, based on his own play.
And its genesis as a play is evident from the start. LaBute has decided to keep the stage-y, stylized dialogue essayed by his four leads (all of whom also played their roles on the stage) intact for the movie, a decision that begins to make sense as the movie progresses and viewers get over the feeling they are watching Mamet-lite
Adam (Paul Rudd) is a schlub of a university student, nerdy in the extreme and in love with his friend and fellow student Phillip's (Fred Weller) fiancée Jenny (Gretchen Mol). Enter beautiful art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) who meets Adam while he's on the job as a part-time security guard at the museum. "I don't like art that isn't true," she says before promptly defacing a statue while Adam watches. Like any red-blooded straight male university student, he falls hard for her.
Happily for Adam, the quirky and opinionated Evelyn returns his affection, even as she begins to make him over-getting him to eat right, lose a bit of weight, toss out that old tweed jacket, get contacts, etc. It's only when she begins to drive a wedge between Adam and Phillip (a jerk straight from The Company of Men outtakes) and Jenny, and then suggests that Adam get a nose job, that her behaviour stops being flightily eccentric and takes on the colouration of neurosis, if not psychosis. If you know the play you know what's coming...
At one point Evelyn says, "If you feel it, it's not stupid," something that LaBute absolutely disagrees with. It is just that sentiment that both allows Evelyn to behave in the way she does and makes Adam acquiesce so easily to her will-after all he's in love and love is blind isn't it?
Late in the film a gallery is festooned with a banner announcing that "Moralists have no place in an art gallery," a quote credited to Han Suyin, but LaBute the misanthropic moralist feels that morality is exactly what is lacking in both art and life. A morality that needs to privilege thought over what he sees to be the late 20th century domination of "feeling," however wooly headed or hurtful those "feelings" may be.
Sure LaBute can be schematic and, on occasion, as self-righteous as an unfairly wronged kid, but his playful use of language-at one point Jenny ruefully says about her fiance, "Old Phil is six things away from being amazing"-coupled with his decision to write and direct films about ideas make him rather rare on the American film landscape.