This time it's the woman who manipulates the man in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things.

Neil LaBute is back to his old self again, and the cinematic world is a better place for it.

Honestly, what was he thinking when he made Possession? Did the charges of misogyny still lingering from In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors get to him so much that he felt he had to do a weepy chick flick? Nurse Betty was decent, but the fact that it was a film that came more to life when it focused less on the title character's perspective and more on the apparent antagonist in Morgan Freeman should've been a hint that everyone's favorite in-your-face liberal Mormon doesn't fare so well telling women's stories.

Actually, the problem might be that he isn't so well-suited to telling other people's stories, period, especially when he still has so many of his own to tell. Not that those tales necessarily appeal, but if you've seen any of his self-penned material before, you'll have a good idea as to whether you'll love or loathe his new one, The Shape of Things. As one of the principals says near film's end, "Only indifference is suspect."

It's a bitch to write about this one, though, because LaBute, much like M. Night Shyamalan, relies on surprises and shocks, and even more than before here, with a climax that virtually stabs a knife into your chest, and a coda that twists the bare bodkin even further. Notice the Shakespearean use of "bare bodkin" in that previous sentence? Good, because I'm making a point in none-too-subtle LaBute-like fashion; it's a running gag in The Shape of Things that ostensible protagonist Adam (Paul Rudd) makes classical literary references that his girlfriend Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, who also coproduced) doesn't catch. Compounding the point, LaBute drops some visual references in the background to Medea and Hedda Gabler, just to rub in the notion that women can be psycho, and to prove that he's read about it. You expect this in a film-school project, but hope that an auteur on his fifth movie could transcend such dime-store "symbolism."

No need to pick on the man too much, however. The Shape of Things is a fun flick otherwise. The mere idea that the title, at least on the surface, refers to the actual build of male genitalia, should tell you where the film's headed. Adam is an impotent watchman at a college art museum, and he meets Evelyn as she plans to desecrate a statue. Speaking in stagy repartee (which gets better as the film progresses, or at least the viewer gets used to it), they recognize love, or possibly just lust, at first sight.

Except that she hates his hair. He, being a nerd who seldom gets any action, naturally opts to fix his coif ASAP. But that's just the beginning: weight loss, diet change, rifts with friends, and even a nose job lie ahead, achieved through a gradual process of subtle manipulation by the intensely passionate Evelyn, who convinces Adam that it's all his idea. Most guys change at least a little when they're in a relationship, but LaBute characters tend to be archetypes who take things to the extreme, and they don't disappoint here. (The fact that Star Wars' evil master manipulator Ian "Palpatine" McDiarmid is thanked in the end credits is a nice coincidental touch.)

Also in the picture is Jenny (Gretchen Mol), a girl Adam had long wanted to ask out but never dared to; she ended up going out with his doofus roommate Phil (Frederick Weller, best known for playing Brian Wilson in ABC's The Beach Boys: An American Family), to whom she's now engaged. With LaBute's buddy Aaron Eckhart apparently busy counting the zeroes in his paycheck from The Core, it's up to Weller to fill the designated role of Dumb Sexist Guy, and he does so brilliantly, at one point earnestly delivering the toast, "To balls -- long may they wave!" Call him the thinking man's Ashton Kutcher, if such a concept is indeed possible.

LaBute has also returned to his older notions of how to use music in a film, which should please those of us who found the scores in his last two films a tad overdone. Music snippets only serve as scene transitions herein, this time culled from the works of Elvis Costello, mostly omitting the vocals, which is an improvement and also makes the tracks sound eerily similar to the heavy percussion of the In the Company of Men soundtrack. For many hipsters, the union of Costello and LaBute must have been a dream project -- too bad Elliott Smith couldn't also be worked in there somewhere.

To touch more on the film's details would be to spoil it; suffice it to say that once again LaBute pushes past the boundaries of acceptable behavior and forces his audience to pass judgment. Those who've dismissed him as amoral miss the point completely. By not cuing you as to what to think about his protagonists, he forces you to decide for yourself, which is a highly moral stance, and ultimately more memorable than spoon-feeding us the answer. The risk, of course, is that some will learn the wrong lesson (an acquaintance of mine came out of In the Company of Men hailing its despicable woman-hater as a new hero, and some women are sure to adore Evelyn), but most will at least be talking afterwards, and that's one sign of a memorable movie, whether you liked it or not.


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