Adam is working his way through school as a museum guard. Evelyn is a rebellious young art student revolted by the fig leaf appended to one of the museum's statues. She moves a little closer to perform a little spray paint protest.
"You've stepped over the line," says Adam to Evelyn in this college-town Eden.
Remember those words. They'll echo.
"That's why I did it," says Evelyn. "To see what happens." Those words, too, will have an echo. But then so does what most people say in the remarkably dire and dark films that are both written and directed by Neil LaBute. The newest, "The Shape of Things," began life as a stage play and, on film, has absolutely no interest whatsoever in gratuitous camera or editing gymnastics; it's virtually a filmed stage play and is proud of it.
Remember "In the Company of Men," LaBute's first film about the astonishingly cruel pranks played by the self-mythologizing office sharks on a deaf secretary? Turn that film's genders upside down. Put all of the power and sexual game-playing in the hands of the woman. Add debates about aesthetics and morals that play almost as ideologically (if less gracefully) as debates in George Bernard Shaw's work.
Think of very minor and updated Shaw without the limber intellectual calisthenics and the preening wit, and you've got this postmodern gender fable from LaBute.
As two people must who meet under such circumstances -- even in something as non-cute as a LaBute movie -- they get involved. But then what else would Adam and Evelyn do? The free-living Bohemian art student and the young man with two jobs getting through school become a pair.
In the way that self-possessed women are wont to do with the men who share their beds, refrigerators and laundry hampers, she changes him slowly -- waist size, hairstyle, taste in clothing and friends. (Three quarters of the men in the audience will, by this time, be identifying madly.)
Adam's best friend, Philip, is about to get married. Unfortunately, at dinner for four, he reveals himself to be the biggest jackass in the western world and that ultimate premarital horror besides -- the un-remade man. Because this is a LaBute film, things don't stop there.
Raving aesthetic arguments happen -- about performance art, art with menstrual blood, all of which dramatically compress and drastically oversimplify genuine aesthetic quandaries in postmodern times. Trouble in pair-land escalates. This particular game of mixed doubles turns out be a very bitter little match indeed.
And that's even before the conclusion.
Actors love LaBute's work and for obvious reasons. They're far less offended by stagey dialogue than movie audiences tend to be and they relish the horns and tails and pitchforks that LaBute gives his little stereotypes. Paul Rudd, as the made-over man, is good here but both Rachel Weisz (as Evelyn) and Gretchen Mol (as Philip's fiancee) reveal dimensions they haven't shown on film before (a notable oddity given that LaBute's work depends, to some extent, on moral two-dimensionality).
There is, as always, just enough of the recognizable human race in this dark new piece by LaBute to make his audiences at the end both uncomfortable and weirdly, horribly entertained, if not exactly satisfied.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
* * * 1/2
STARRING: Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd and Gretchen Mol
DIRECTOR: Neil LaBute
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
RATING: R for sex and sex talk
THE LOWDOWN: Free-living young art student performs a total makeover on the guy she's involved with.