Neil LaBute's characters don't engage in love and romance; they go to war. Signature films like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors depict the vile ways that people can inflict pain and suffering much greater than physical blows. Well-meaning characters find themselves engaging in nasty behavior to get the upper hand. LaBute shows how society's winners aren't the nice guys and gals who treat others with respect. Instead, the leaders manipulate their closest friends and have no moral quandaries about humiliating them. Everything's a gray area in this ugly world. The followers end up leaping right off the cliff because they can't imagine the others don't have their best intentions at heart. Mean behavior is sometimes just an experiment to see how far people will go to gain acceptance.
The third entry in this thematic series is The Shape of Things, LaBute's 2003 adaptation of his play of the same name. All four lead actors reprise their roles from the stage version and clearly understand their specific characters. Paul Rudd stars as Adam Sorenson, a mild-mannered and awkward guy who has little luck with women. He works at a museum while studying English at Mercy College. When he meets the cute and interesting Evelyn Ann Thompson (Rachel Weisz), it feels like his luck has finally changed. She drags Adam out of his comfort zone and pushes him to become a new man. He loses weight, gets a new haircut, and starts dressing differently, and these changes are just the beginning. Evelyn also messes with Adam's relationship with his best friends Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Frederick Weller). They're engaged and seem happy, though she once had a thing for Adam. Evelyn is an art student and speaks her mind, regardless of how it affects others. This creates tensions within the group, and he starts drifting away from his former pals.
Although it takes place at locations around campus, this story feels more like a play than a typical film. Lengthy conversations take place at one site, and characters speak in the extended monologues that you'd expect to see on stage. LaBute lets the tension slowly build within these sequences. A statement might seem harmless at first, but it can lead to surprise emotional conflicts that seem ready to spiral out of control. It's clear from the start that Evelyn's not your typical girlfriend, but Adam is too smitten to see it. She finds subtle ways to manipulate him against his friends and away from his original personality. While some changes are positive, his final destination isn't such a happy place. The ultimate revelations are surprising but right in front of us the whole time. LaBute gives us enough information to question Evelyn's motives, but we've been trained to expect the best from our movie characters. Even quirky firebrands usually end up being softies by the end.
One of the best sequences has Adam and Jenny meeting at a local park to discuss her concerns with Philip. It starts out harmlessly, but there's more happening beneath the surface. It's clear these two kids are heading for more than just a standard conversation. Rudd's signature mix of charm and awkwardness makes their connection slightly unsettling even though the chemistry is there. Jenny is basically throwing herself at the guy, but it takes a long time before Adam sees it. Strangely, it's Evelyn's influence that makes him a lot more attractive to a girl who's about to get married. This key moment starts a chain reaction that damages the relationships, but it also wouldn't happen in their former states. LaBute shows how Evelyn has improved Adam but messed him up at the same time.
Although it covers similar territory to LaBute's previous works, The Shape of Things feels a bit more forced. Adam is such a lunkhead that it's sometimes difficult to sympathize with him. We also don't get the same understanding of Philip as the other characters. He becomes more of a plot device than a three-dimensional guy. Weisz also pushes the goofy parts of Evelyn's personality a bit too much and makes her less believable. She's an art student with an interesting style, so it isn't hard to understand what Adam sees in her. However, the final scenes might have had a greater impact if we connected more with her. Evelyn generates chaos in nearly every scene, so it's hard to believe that even the wide-eyed Adam wouldn't suspect her true intentions. Even so, LaBute explores compelling themes about relationships and the drive for self-improvement. There are elements of truth within each person's connection, and even a human chess game can't be viewed in such a black-and-white manner. Going beyond the morality, it's an intriguing concept that leaves you questioning how much free will truly exists with our actions each day.