Moral minefield

Neil LaBute widens the gender gap in The Shape of Things

Neil LaBute makes the kinds of films sure to create animosity during post-movie discussions. His In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors are date films for misanthropes and people who will probably never make it to their second.

His films are button-pushers, though often in such strangely oblique ways, you aren’t aware of why or how you are being provoked, just that you are. LaBute seems more interested in getting his audience agitated than in pursuing catharsis or making judgments. He is the perfect emissary of a morally gray time, when matters of morality and ethics can no longer be agreed upon and the New York Times “Ethicist” adviser seems more emblematic of the age than Miss Manners dispensing etiquette tips. Salad forks, fie. We are in the age of ethical triage.

The Shape of Things thus suits LaBute’s objectives and the temper of our times beautifully even while it contains an uncharacteristically obvious and reactionary notion at its core. The film is classic LaBute, loaded with gender tension, one major mind-fuck and a very dark view of the epic void that separates men and women, a recurring theme in many of his films.

Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is introduced snapping Polaroids of the fig leaf-covered genitalia of a large classical statue in her university’s museum, which she finds objectionable on the grounds that such fig leaf censorship is bad. An upstart Eve brandishing a can of spray paint instead of an apple, this mean mother is a force to be reckoned with.

Evelyn is tentatively confronted by milquetoast college security guard Adam (Paul Rudd), who is first frightened then titillated by this art-school babe flaunting the rules and dressed to kill in Urban Outfitters chic. True to his biblical typecasting, Adam takes a bite of the dangerous apple dangled before him.

The two, improbably, become lovers, the mensch in the corduroy jacket and the cool chick studying for her MFA and working on some unspecified art “project.” In a familiar coed drama, Evelyn — the strident feminist — gets into furious arguments with Adam’s obnoxious, sexist former roommate, Phillip (Fred Weller), who is engaged to the sweet, passive girl (Gretchen Mol) Adam let get away.

While Evelyn defends the kind of pretentious feminist art LaBute encourages his audience to roll their eyes at, classicist Adam (clearly playing LaBute’s proxy), likes to quote from Dickens. Adam and Evelyn disagree on the artistic value of a performance artist who removes a tampon and writes her name in menstrual blood. Vive la difference.

Playing to the reflex prejudices of his audience, a popular disgust with conceptual art and the kind of creepily self-aggrandizing people like Eve who defend it, The Shape of Things has an ax to grind about the difference between “real” literary art and the variety Eve is defending.

“Is that from a book?” Evelyn queries Adam, the word “book” sticking in her throat like a foreign object. In sharp contrast, Evelyn likes to quote from the ’70s trash TV show “Kung Fu.”

With Adam’s tacit and then increasingly reluctant agreement, Evelyn begins an overhaul of her boyfriend’s life, starting with his corduroy jacket, which gets packed off to Goodwill, then with his nose, which she advises be surgically snipped into a more desirable shape. Eventually Evelyn makes even greater demands, along the lines of “lose the friends,” too.

LaBute’s implication is that Evelyn will soon be asking for Adam’s soul on a stick.

Like some overgrown puppy with his paw caught in a lady-trap, Adam is fresh meat for Evelyn, willing to go along with her suggestions for the sake of their love. He is such a love- or lust-struck sap, such a perfect dolt, he often suggests Barry Bostwick’s square pants performance as a piece of clueless whitebread in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

LaBute delights in quixotic effect, so it’s hard to know if The Shape of Things is a critique of women’s cruel passive-aggressive tendencies where men are concerned — a gender twist on In the Company of Men — or a scathing critique of the excesses of performance art (for the five people in America who have any kind of opinion on the subject). LaBute’s old-school, fusty complaint seems to be how we have substituted junk and pretense for true culture, an interesting point coming from someone who has made his mark in cinema, which, for many classicists, is still lumped in with the bastard arts.

LaBute has a point in decrying the shallowness of a culture that puts beauty and appearance above all things, as seen in Adam’s willingness to become more attractive for Evelyn’s sake. But those kinds of issues seem steamrolled by LaBute’s larger gripe with women and with the art world, which make The Shape of Things feel very agenda-laden beneath its contrived veneer of ambiguity.

LaBute wants you to know that there are unhealthy, psychologically unbalanced people out there playing dangerous games for the sake of art or money or fame. Where LaBute sees himself in this moral topography may be the most fascinating lingering question left behind in The Shape of Things.