After the commercial blandola of "Possession" and "Nurse Betty," it's good to see Neil LaBute re-entering the theater of cruelty. But "The Shape of Things," an adaptation of his stage play, still doesn't come near the home run of manipulated emotions he scored with 1997's "In the Company of Men."
Reversing the gender of predation, LaBute this time assigns the questionable motives to a disquietingly kooky college coed named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). When we meet her, she's initiating the seduction of a nerdish art-museum guard named Adam (Paul Rudd).
Adam and Evelyn. Got it? Good.
As their courtship intensifies, Evelyn influences Adam to lose weight, trade in his specs for contacts and undergo a nose job. It's supposed to be an emancipation, but to our eyes, the end product is just another genus of dork: Adam II bears an uncanny resemblance to David Naughton in the old Dr. Pepper commercials.
At the same time, Evelyn sows discord among Adam's chauvinistic pal Phillip (Frederick Weller) and Phillip's fiancée, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) -- who happens to be the subject of one of Adam's lingering crushes. On the surface, LaBute seems to be exploring a familiar college-age conundrum: How many former associations should one jettison to be part of a committed couple? And how much sacrifice instead denotes unhealthy obsession on somebody's part?
This love-quadrangle plot is a total washout, though, largely because the common ground between Adam and Phillip is impossible to identify. You can't believe that these two ever shared a beer, let alone a genuine moment of bonding. But the resolution of the Evelyn/Adam dynamic -- the script's true area of interest -- proves worth the wait. It's one of those narrative gut-punches that makes LaBute a genuinely provocative scenarist. Whether or not you see it coming is almost beside the point.
If only LaBute had bothered to retrofit his material for the screen. "Shape" seems like an experiment in nonadaptation, eschewing all of the recognized conventions of the craft -- like having characters walk while they talk to enliven static stretches of dialogue, or inserting linking material that clarifies the elapsed time between scenes. This story must have been a powder keg of emotions on the stage, but as a film, it's too inert and claustrophobic to cut as deeply as it should.