LaBute's latest a disappointing effort


`Shape of Things' goes to video after recall from theaters

October 10, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Focus Features originally scheduled Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things for a May 16 opening here, then recalled it after audiences in other cities voted against it with their feet. But the original stage version is now at the Top Floor (5440 Harford Road), and LaBute's movie has hit home-video shelves as a Universal tape and DVD.

Because of a climactic trick, LaBute's work may "play" on the boards. But as a film, this college-set, gender-switched Pygmalion is relentless and familiar - just another shallow, vapid LaBute exploration of amorality, like his inexplicable art house hits In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. In last weekend's issue of The New York Times Magazine, James Traub wrote, "Neil LaBute, with his muscled-up champions in the Darwinian struggle for sex and money, pitiless with the confidence that a day of reckoning would never come, was the laureate of the Wall Street boom." The Shape of Things offers proof that his time has gone.

The chief manipulator here is art grad student Rachel Weisz. She wows chubby, eager-to-please English major Paul Rudd with her bohemian drive and flair, then prods him to improve every aspect of his face and body. Looking on with curious affection is golden-girl co-ed Gretchen Mol, who fancied Rudd before the change and is now engaged to his former roommate, the rabidly regular guy-ish Frederick Weller.

LaBute's usual strategy of tarting up archetypes and deploying them in psychological combat is supposed to yield universal ironies - this time about people acting worse the better they look. Since Weisz is a would-be artist, The Shape of Things is also meant to examine the freedom of cutting-edge creative folk to exploit the most intimate details of their lives. Actually, far more than any Seinfeld episode, this movie version of LaBute's play is about nothing except its author's pet peeves.

Weisz, trying to stretch beyond her commercial movie roles (the sexiest and best was in Enemy at the Gate), constricts into curly-lipped captiousness. Rudd has all the emotional weight of an aggrieved shmoo. Weller effortlessly fills the contours of a Man Show sort of guy, but only Mol gets to be fully human. With quicksilver empathy and a perceptiveness she can't articulate, she's too good for either guy - and too good for this movie.

At the Charles

Tomorrow's third entry in the Charles' outstanding "Kurosawa and Mifune" series marks the first time master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa broke through to international audiences and found his frequent star. It's Rashomon, the towering 1951 picture, set in medieval Kyoto, about a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) who raped an aristocrat's wife and murdered the husband - unless the nobleman committed suicide. Retelling the story in four flashbacks from four characters (a witness and the participants - including, through a medium, the dead man), Kurosawa achieved what Pauline Kael in 1961 called "the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth."

That's why critics invoked it whenever they discussed this year's documentary phenomenon, Capturing the Friedmans. But the movie also brought together one of the strongest actor-director partnerships in movie history.

Kurosawa's brilliant cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa described Mifune as a performer who expressed himself in action. "What made Mifune outstanding was his body ... a thick chest, muscular arms and shoulders. It was really clear from the lens. So it also helped Rashomon to be very real; regular acting can't create that feeling."

Mifune energized Kurosawa's metaphysical conundrums with his own physical force, and the still-thrilling results go on display tomorrow at noon and Thursday at 9 p.m. Information: or 410-727-FILM.

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