The Shape of Things
Film Length: 97 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English (Captioned), French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1 & DTS 5.1; French – Dolby Surround
The Shape of Things, adapted by Neil LaBute from his 2001 play of the same name, is a fascinating film, full of unique concepts and brilliant (but grim) explorations of the complexity of relationships between men and women. As do LaBute’s earlier works, The Company of Men and Nurse Betty, this film benefits from his tightly woven script, outstanding character development, and an effective, surprising ending. The tone is similar to that in The Company of Men as well, focusing on manipulation and betrayal, except this time the antagonist is a female.
As The Shape of Things opens, we are introduced to Adam (Paul Rudd), a geeky, overweight introvert who is majoring in English at Mercy College and working as a museum security guard to get by. In short order, Adam comes upon a seductive graduate student named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), who is planning to vandalize one of the museum’s statues. Unfortunately for our stone friend, Adam is so taken with Evelyn that he is more interested in asking her out than in preserving the museum’s art. As a result, Adam disappears, allowing Evelyn to do her dirty work, and a relationship between these two very different people begins to blossom.
Before meeting Evelyn, Adam was a person with plenty of intellect, but low self-esteem and deficient social skills. Therefore, his aggressive new love interest quickly becomes the dominant force in the relationship, and begins to make him over. Blindly in love, Adam loses weight, reinvents his appearance, and changes his wardrobe at Evelyn’s behest. To be fair, most of the transformations suggested by Evelyn do benefit Adam in some way, and the decisions are ultimately left up to him, but it is very clear that Evelyn is the one pulling Adam’s strings, and she does not hesitate to infuse her own philosophies and characteristics into his persona. Quite simply, the radiant Evelyn is the most exciting thing to ever come into Adam’s life, so he rolls around like putty in her pretty little hands while she transforms him into her ideal man.
In the meantime, Adam’s best friend Phillip (Frederick Weller) and his fiancée Jenny (Gretchen Mol) watch Adam’s metamorphosis into a more handsome and confident young man with trepidation. You see, as Adam changes physically, his temperament is altered as well. His friends are alarmed as a darker side of Adam emerges, and he becomes more prone to anger then he had been. The pair also notices that despite the many changes that Evelyn is coercing Adam into, they do not appear to be growing closer as a couple, so Phillip becomes greatly concerned over the way his friend is being reinvented.
Jenny does not share the concerns of her fiancée though, and while Phillip is busy lamenting the changes in his buddy Adam, she discovers that she has been repressing feelings for Adam all along. Once Jenny’s feelings bubble to the surface, sparks fly, friendships are put to the test, and Adam is put in the unenviable position of choosing between his oldest and dearest friends and his new lover. To reveal any more of the plot would be criminal, so I will leave it up to you to find out how things turn out for Adam, Evelyn, Phillip, and Jenny if you so choose.
In terms of direction, Neil LaBute manipulates these themes of passion, love, and emotional distress beautifully, which leads me to conclude that The Shape of Things is a more engaging and effective film than his previous efforts. Yet even though LaBute’s direction is as deliberate and efficient as ever, this artistic endeavor really shines in the acting department. Undoubtedly, the fact that the cast is comprised of the same individuals who starred in the stage version of this film paid big dividends. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as Evelyn, playing the diabolical temptress with a precision that adds a lot of depth to her chameleon-like character, who is charming one minute and almost inhuman the next. The other actors are also up to the challenge, turning in inspired, riveting performances that help weave the complex plot threads together.
As you might have guessed by now, I liked The Shape of Things quite a bit. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the negative aspects of human behavior that are so prevalent in LaBute’s previous films are front and center here as well. Without question, Neil LaBute is one of the most uncompromising directors working today, and he is certainly unafraid of challenging his audience with dark, disturbing, and complex themes. For that reason, this film is not for everyone, and if you do not have an affinity for LaBute’s earlier efforts, or an ability to digest a very cynical view of love and human nature, then The Shape of Things might be a film you should skip. On the other hand, if you are in the mood for a unique, artistic film that will force you to think, feel, and ask questions, The Shape of Things might be just the ticket.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Universal’s anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer for The Shape of Things is serviceable overall, but does have a few more flaws than I would have expected from a newer release. Specifically, although the image usually appears rather clean, and generally free from distracting dirt or blemishes, it is also a little on the soft side, with worse than average fine detail. I also noticed a fair amount of edge enhancement, which was enough to cause distraction during a few scenes.
Disappointingly, compression artifacting is also clearly visible in several spots. The good news is that color reproduction is pretty accurate, except for some slight bleed here and there. Overall, I have to say that I was somewhat less than impressed by the quality of this transfer, especially given the fact that this is a recent release, and that it comes from Universal, which is a studio one can usually bank on to deliver a good transfer.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
There are several audio options present for The Shape of Things, including both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. Falling in line with the content of the film, there is precious little surround or LFE usage. This is to be expected though, since the film is almost entirely dialogue driven. On the whole, dialogue is faithfully rendered, and the score remains clear, thanks to pleasing separation and a fairly expansive front soundstage when it is called upon to do more than deliver dialogue.
A minor quibble I had is that the volume of the score seemed a bit jarring at times, particularly the level of the rear channels. This could be perceptual though, due to the contrast between the score and subdued nature of the audio track during most of the film. Anyway, to cut to the chase, this track won’t blow the doors off your house (it isn’t meant to), but it does a more than adequate job of presenting The Shape of Things’ audio content.
**Feature Length Commentary:
The enjoyable feature-length commentary track by writer-director Neil LaBute and actor Paul Rudd is astonishingly lively and lighthearted. As you might expect given LaBute’s involvement, there is in-depth treatment of a variety of interesting topics, including the process of transitioning the stage play to the big screen and the interaction between the cast, among other things. Considering that The Shape of Things is a rather disturbing exploration of some of the more reprehensible aspects of human behavior, I was pleasantly surprised by how jovial LaBute and Rudd are, which in turn makes this commentary track very easy to listen to. It is a must-listen for anyone wanting some insight into LaBute’s creative process, this film, or for fans of LaBute’s uncompromising work.
** From Stage to Screen: An Introduction by Neil LaBute
During this brief introduction to the film by Neil LaBute, which only lasts a couple of minutes, he lays out how the talents of the four lead actors helped ease the transition of The Shape of Things from stage to screen. He also discusses how the film was shot in only 19 days, and how the California setting fits perfectly with some of the themes present in the film. Mr. LaBute seems quite intellectual, and provides more than enough insight into The Shape of Things during the few minutes this piece runs for to make it worthwhile, especially for fans of this film, or of LaBute’s work in general.
**Welcome to Mercy College
This cool short, reminiscent of the “Where are They Now?” featurette on the new Animal House: Double Secret Probation Edition DVD, features the characters in the film giving their take on what kind of school Mercy College is.
The theatrical trailer for The Shape of Things is included.
NOTE: Upon starting the disc, you will be forced to watch trailers for Swimming Pool, and The Guys. They cannot be bypassed, but they can be fast-forwarded through in relatively short order
For those who enjoy this movie, Universal recommends that you check out 8 Women, The Pianist, Possession, and Far From Heaven.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
The Shape of Things is a very challenging film, and a rather unsettling take on the relationship between men and women, the essence of art, and human nature. As such, I think it is the type of film with no in-between, meaning that it will either piss you off or make you a believer in Neil LaBute’s talent. The strong performances, clever dialogue, and thought-provoking ideas present in this film affected me enough to win me over, although I cannot overstate my belief that this film’s grim, cynical outlook on love and relationships might prove to be too much for most people.
As for the presentation itself, the transfer left something to be desired in my mind, but the audio track is serviceable, and the extras, while not abundant, are highly entertaining. Therefore, fans of Neil Labute’s work should be pleased with this disc, despite the mediocre transfer, and may want to consider picking this release up. However, for the more casual fan, or someone just looking for a little something different, I would recommend a rental over a purchase.
September 23rd, 2003