Below Radar: Paul Rudd ponders “The Shape of Things”

Posted on 01 April 2009 by ShepRamsey

Paul Rudd has become quite the comedy star as of late. He’s produced quite a few laughs recently in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Role Models, and right now he can be seen in I Love You, Man. And while I wasn’t a fan of that particular movie, I’m glad to see that he’s headlining big movies that are getting a fair amount of attention.

It took a long time for Paul Rudd to get to where he is now, and he’s made a lot of quality stuff along the way. I remember way back in one of his i_love_you_man3earliest roles in Clueless, where he played Alicia Silverstone’s step-brother who she fell in love with and it was kinda creepy, but they were both pretty so it was okay. I remember when he played little Tommy Doyle, all grown up in the underrated Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. And he was even in that wretched Baz Luhrman version of Romeo & Juliet.

So, you see, Paul Rudd’s been here all this time and the world is just now giving him his notice. It’s always nice to see a really talented character actor rise above the rank of “that one guy from that one movie.” Well, I’m proud to say that I’ve always been on the “Paul Rudd Rocks!” bandwagon, and right now I’d like to take this opportunity to point out one of his films from six years ago that’s been a big favorite of mine that too few people saw. That movie is The Shape of Things, written and directed by Neil LaBute, based on his play.

Changing the focus for a bit, LaBute is a bit of a strange character. Of his filmography, he’s made about three movies that are the ones largely considered to be “Neil LaBute movies,” and those films are In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and The Shape of Things. He’s ventured into some other interesting territories, including the universally panned remake of The Wicker Man and last fall’s Lakeview Terrace. But personally, I don’t think LaBute was ever more on top of his game than he was with this maddeningly cynical 2003 anti-romance.

Now, I’m well aware that people make cynical anti-romances all the time. The “indie” genre (because, let’s face it, that’s pretty much what the term refers to now) is made up of hoards of them. But no one does them as well as LaBute. He just seems so much more sincere. And I know what you must be thinking about that—sincere romantic cynicism? Do we really need that? But I assure you, that’s not what his films are all about. His excellent dialogue speaks to an authentic sadness and insecurity rather than Juno-brand smarmy pretentiousness.

In fact, The Shape of Things goes so far as to implicate that same pretentious attitude in many of the woes it depicts. The movie is about shapeofthingsAdam (Rudd), a shy, mousy guy who goes to graduate school and works as a security guard in an art museum. It’s there that he meets the abrasively free-spirited art student, Evelyn (played by the always-terrific Rachel Weisz, who also served as producer on the film) who informs him that she has come to spray-paint a penis on top of a plaster fig-leaf that the museum placed to cover up the genitals of one of their statues. He’s taken in by her because she’s beautiful and she’s paying attention to him.

After a wonderful exchange of sharp, funny dialogue (including such gems as “You’re not gonna mess up my weekend with this, are you?” “I wasn’t planning on it, but I’m not completely against it, either.”), he asks for her number and she obligingly spray-paints it on the inside of his hideous corduroy jacket. They begin dating and after not too long, Adam, lonely guy that he is, is head-over-heels for Evelyn, who continually showers him in patronizing comments like “You’re cute…I don’t like your hair…but you’re definitely cute.”

Adam heeds her “helpful” comments and friendly “suggestions” to a tee, and begins changing his hairstyle, buying new clothes, losing weight, and even getting plastic surgery, all to the concern/chagrin of Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Fred Weller), Adam’s engaged yuppie friends. Evelyn’s outwardly liberal attitudes particularly strike a chord with Phillip as the two engage in a heated argument about a certain recently-defaced statue at the art museum. Adam eventually finds himself torn between being the man Evelyn wants him to be and being the man his friends want him to be.

LaBute creates an intensely sad character with Adam and Rudd pulls off the performance with fantastic authenticity. Adam is the poster-child for low self-esteem. Anyone can relate, at least in some way, to his timid thirst for acceptance. He’s really not unlike his character from I Love You, Man, except for here he’s not a total caricature. He’s a real character so massively insecure that he’s afraid to have a personality of his own or to go after what he wants for fear of being rejected by the world. As such, it’s no wonder that his best friend is Fred, the obnoxious take-charge alpha male who says he wants what’s best for Adam, but we can’t help but get the sense that he feels threatened by Evelyn as the new key source of influence in Adam’s life. 

And as blatantly manipulative as Evelyn can be to him, it’s never hard to see why he stays with her and even loves her. He’s found constant acceptance from her and is willing to do anything to hang on to that. And when he and Jenny share a brief kiss, igniting the romantic spark that’s always existed between them, Evelyn uses it to further manipulate him and destroy everything that’s important to him. Weisz is really pretty excellent in her role. She plays the domineering/manipulative part of Evelyn with the perfect attitude of self-righteous hipster innonence while doing a stand-up shapeofthingspicjob of keeping her humanity intact at the same time. Even when there’s nothing we might be able to specifically relate to about her, I think we all at least know someone a little bit like her. 

And I don’t dare say how the movie ends, except that it’s quite the punch in the gut. I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again: This is an extremely cynical movie and may, in that regard, put some people off. I’d like to talk about the ending, as there’s so much more that can be said once it’s put out there, but since so few people have seen this film as it is, I’ll be courteous and abstain. Although cynical, it really is well worth watching if you can stomach it.

All that aside, I can’t say it’s exactly the most cinematic of films. It’s very dialogue-heavy and is the kind of movie you’d watch and guess that it started out as a stage play even if you were completely unfamiliar with it. The entire film consists mainly of long dialogue scenes punctuated by heavy primal-sounding percussion interludes (LaBute used the same technique in In the Company of Men). Many dialogue-focused plays don’t totally work when translated to film, but LaBute’s words are so strong, sincere, very funny, and occasionaly quite heart-wrenching that it pretty much accounts for all the visual prowess that you might need out of a movie.

So, if you’d like to wet your beak a little more on some of the more dramatically-inclined ventures that Paul Rudd has to offer the world, then you’d do quite well to give The Shape of Things a shot. Sure, you could bust out some Clueless or some Halloween 6 or even that dreadful Baz Luhrman picture, but you won’t find anything as heart-breakingly sad and honest as this film. I had glossed over this movie in the video store from time to time, noticing it but never renting it. I saw it for the first time when it played in the middle of the night on HBO and I couldn’t tear myself away from it. Don’t do what I did and underestimate this fine, fine little film.

I’d command that you go rent it right now, but maybe it’s best saved for a “fuck the world” mood. Oh, well. Until we meet again, folks!                           

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