Those who lamented the "old" Neil LaBute absent from offbeat but big-hearted "Nurse Betty," let alone downright mushy "Possession," should relish the emotional acid bath provided by "The Shape of Things."

Those who lamented the “old” Neil LaBute absent from offbeat but big-hearted “Nurse Betty,” let alone downright mushy “Possession,” should relish the emotional acid bath provided by “The Shape of Things.” Very much in line with his maiden screen efforts “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” (as well as his interim stage works), this adaptation of LaBute’s 2001 play provides a queasy investigation of male-female relations that ends with a satisfying shudder of recognition at the extreme cruelty possible within human relationships, particularly those conceived by Neil LaBute. Superbly handled, yet still very much a series of conversational setpieces, pic will need considerable buzz to avoid the tepid reception accorded such similar stage-to-film entities as “Oleanna” and “Tape.” That process is complicated further by the fact that “Shape” is almost impossible to discuss without revealing the climactic twist that redefines everything that went before. Nonetheless, Focus Features release might build arthouse steam from its likely aud- and critic-dividing nature.

Opening scene establishes mood of uneasy attraction as museum security guard Adam (Paul Rudd) notices fellow university student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) stepping over the velvet ropes to stand directly beneath a large Renaissance sculpture. She refuses to budge, in a half-threatening, half-playful way — and similarly suggests the marble male figure might merit defacing, since the fig leaf that local prudes imposed upon its groin constitutes a betrayal of art. “I don’t like art that isn’t true,” she says. Nonetheless, her flirtatiousness (and willingness to give Adam her phone number) persuades him to leave the scene without escorting her out.

We soon find out that “somebody” did indeed vandalize the statue, since that crops up as conversational fodder some weeks later when now-coupled Adam and Evelyn are spending an evening with his brash former roommate Philip (Frederick Weller) and latter’s fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol).

The second couple notice subtle changes in the hitherto dweeby, pudgy, socially awkward Adam — a new haircut, perhaps? Evidence of some weight loss and muscle gain? Possibility that his friend is being “whipped” into shape by a mere girl is something the boorish, frat-jock-type Philip won’t let pass without comment. An instant, mutual dislike arises between him and Evelyn, whose somewhat pretentiously intellectual, opinionated persona is just what he can’t handle in the opposite sex. The night degenerates into violent argument as passive Adam and timid Jenny squirm in the middle.

The influence that art-school MFA candidate Evelyn — who’s working on her “thesis thingie” throughout story’s 18-month-span — exerts over the highly malleable Adam becomes more marked with each succeeding scene. Pounds melt away, geek specs are replaced by contact lenses, clothes get more modish. His confidence is growing, too, even if it’s too embarrassing to admit (especially to goading Philip) how wholly responsible Evelyn is for these “improving” changes.

She’s constantly pushing boundaries — videotaping their sex, questioning his staid values, etc. More, she seems determined to drive a wedge between him and classic Angry White Male Philip. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, this tension also exacerbates cracks in the relationship between Philip and Jenny, whose wedding date looms like a prison stint. The resulting doubts expose previously unacknowledged attraction between Adam and Jenny, even as Evelyn grows more possessively demanding.

It would be unfair to reveal more, though some viewers may guess LaBute’s schematic yet potent “surprise” before it arrives. Suffice to say he rigs a ghastly variation on “Company of Men’s” amoral gamesmanship — the emotional evisceration of a person or persons to prove a “point” — in vividly illustrating human evil.

Hewing close to the stage text, pic still consists almost exclusively of long one-on-one conversations that in some cases (such as a lengthy scene between Adam and Jenny) could have been trimmed; the camera‘s intimacy leads us to the desired insight well before dialogue makes it explicit. That said, Joel Plotch’s deft editing and James L. Carter’s beautifully composed widescreen images render “Shape” as viable a screen entity as possible. Production design and numerous exterior sequences maintain a naturalism breached only in the final reel, when bold, deliberately artificial color schemes arrive on cue.

The four actors — all repeating roles from the play’s London and Off Broadway stage productions — likewise do a superb job keeping matters realistically grounded. Though LaBute is a terrific writer, his texts risk coming off as nasty lab experiments meant to provoke the worst possible behavior from “ordinary” characters. Scattered moments here push the auteurial-manipulation envelope, but it’s to the cast’s great credit that their characters remain credible throughout. Adam’s physical transformation is so convincingly handled that one is startled by the news of prosthetics design in final credit crawl — you might have thought Rudd underwent his own reverse “Raging Bull” regime offscreen.

Tech package is ace. Sparsely used, excerpts from songs by Elvis Costello provide an ideal, propulsive musical commentary.

The Shape of Things

Production

A Focus Features and StudioCanal presentation of a Working Title production in association with Pretty Pictures. Produced by Neil LaBute, Gail Mutrux, Philip Steuer, Rachel Weisz. Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Directed by Neil LaBute. Screenplay, LaBute, based on his stage play.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Panavision widescreen), James L. Carter; editor, Joel Plotch; art production/costume designer, Lynette Meyer; music, Elvis Costello; art director, Christopher H. Lawrence; set decorator, Sondra Thorpe; sound editor (Dolby Digital), Richard E. Yawn; assistant directors, Jonathan M. Watson, John R. Saunders; casting, Fiona Weir. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 18, 2002. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Jenny - Gretchen Mol Adam - Paul Rudd Evelyn - Rachel Weisz Philip - Frederick Weller
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