The Art of War

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Are you tough enough to take the naked truths that Neil LaBute dishes out? Having tried his hand at feel-good comedy and posh literary adaptation with Nurse Betty and Possession, the prolific LaBute returns to the he-man emotional cruelty of his first two movies and recent theater work. The Shape of Things—directed by LaBute from his 2001 play, with the same four actors re-creating their roles—may be considered a distaff version of In the Company of Men. It's a calculated bit of sexual bait-and-switch in which predatory humans toy with each other to achieve their own carnivorous ends.

Boldly schematic, The Shape of Things opens in a college art museum with Adam (Paul Rudd) and Eve . . . lyn (Rachel Weisz) meeting in the shadow of a classically sculpted male divinity. He's working as a guard; she's an aesthetic terrorist who has hopped the barrier protecting the marble artwork in order to spray-paint a penis on its fig leaf. "I hate art that isn't true," she tells him. It may not be the Garden of Eden, but dorky undergrad Adam is fascinated by this wily, self-assured M.F.A. student; tempted by the promise of her phone number, he looks the other way.

Perhaps inspired by the British bad-girl installation artist Tracy Emin, Evelyn—so we soon discover—keeps a video camera trained on her bed, creates her own mini Warhol films, and speaks approvingly of a performance piece that involved the artist finger-painting with her own menstrual blood. (So why wasn't this disruptive vixen called "Lilith"?) Evelyn is a cartoon menace who not only braids her hair in two charming little horns but also accessorizes her Che Guevara T-shirts with Mao buttons. Affecting a buzz-saw purr and squinchy smile, Weisz is nothing if not mannered, but then her part is all about acting.

Lilith fair: Weisz and Rudd in The Shape of Things
photo: Focus Films
Lilith fair: Weisz and Rudd in The Shape of Things

Details

The Shape of Things
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Focus
Opens May 9, at Loews Lincoln Square and Loews Village

King of Hearts
Directed by Philippe de Broca
Written by Daniel Boulanger
MGM
May 9 through 15, at Film Forum

Only the Strong Survive
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Miramax
Opens May 9

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Adam may be hopelessly devoted to the irritating Evelyn, but he's not so blind that he doesn't wonder what exactly she sees in him. "Why would you like me? I'm not anything," he wails, much to her annoyance. Actually, Evelyn does make a few helpful sartorial suggestions, encourage a weight-loss regimen, treat her aw-shucks young protégé to a new haircut, and, somewhat incredibly, persuade him to undertake a bit of cosmetic surgery. When asked about the bandage affixed to his nose, Adam coyly attributes it to a tumble down some stairs. And, as The New England Primer opens, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all."

Fortunately for the viewer, Evelyn and Adam are not entirely alone in the world of Mercy College; Adam has two friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phil (Frederick Weller), graduating seniors who when first encountered are planning to stage their wedding underwater. They make for an amusingly awkward foursome, and, on-screen as onstage, glamour gal Mol unexpectedly gives the quartet's strongest performance—prissy and sweet, masking her uncertainty with a tight, demure smile. (As Weisz says of her own character in a different context, Mol presents the most convincing "illusion of interest and desire.") The entertaining Weller, broadly playing the film's Aaron Eckhart role, is a self-satisfied male chauvinist who renders his smugness suspect with his sidelong glances, slow-dawning suspicions, and supercilious delivery.

LaBute adds a few stray background noises to the soundtrack but declines to open up his play—although the golden light and neoclassical edifices of the near empty California campus where the exteriors were shot accentuate the allegory. In its costumes, line readings, and structure, the movie faithfully preserves the stage production—a provocative, if meretricious, evening of theater that ends in a paroxysm of LaButality with a bear swipe to the spectator's head. It is, however, more difficult to rattle a movie audience—at least with words—and, despite its streamlined presentation, The Shape of Thingsis not nearly as effective on-screen. Where the play ended with a form of direct address, the movie reaches its climax in a Mercy College auditorium (complete with stained-glass windows). Lurking in the background is a perhaps invented aphorism attributed to the author of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." Expelled from Paradise at last.

Although much has been made of his conversion to Mormonism, LaBute seems more fundamentally a Puritan—and not simply in his taste for jeremiad and punitive disdain for sexual pleasure. The Shape of Things is itself shaped by a profound mistrust of art—or rather, a hatred of artifice. But who's kidding whom? This scenario's emphasis on objectification and mind control, its exaggerated horror of duplicity and role-playing, do not convincingly critique art-world solipsism. As Evelyn's agenda folds into LaBute's, The Shape of Things suggests a more personal issue—a self-devouring contempt for theater itself.


An antidote to (or, perhaps, a necessary appetizer for) LaBute's neo-Cromwellian moralizing may be found this week at Film Forum, which has chosen to revive the most cloying of cult films, Philippe de Broca's 1967 King of Hearts.

As World War I ends, the retreating German army abandons a picture-postcard French town but not before booby-trapping the place to blow sky high when British troops arrive. The locals flee and, left to their own devices, a gaggle of cheerful lunatics escape their bin and take over the doomed town—thoroughly confusing the British soldier (Alan Bates) who has been dispatched to defuse the bomb. "Theater is everywhere," the wisest of the loonies informs him—and so are saccharine bromides. The LaBute Skinner box is here filled with bonbons.

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