For right or wrong, many relationships are all about manipulation. When one is pursuing a boyfriend or girlfriend, they consciously or subconsciously alter the way they normally speak, act, look and even smell. They do so, naturally, to attract someone else and manipulate that person into liking them. It's much like when a fisherman snares an initially wary fish with an enticing lure that turns out not to be the real thing.
Once the prospective mate has been landed and some if not all of the early pretense is diminished or dropped altogether, the next level of manipulation occurs. That's when people try to change their significant other and the way they dress, act, speak, etc. Some changes are for the better, but others are done only for the manipulator's own happiness or need for control.
All of that plays out in "The Shape of Things," writer/director Neil LaBute's big screen adaptation of his own stage play. Since all of the filmmaker's previous efforts - including "Possession" and "Your Friends & Neighbors" - have involved examining relationships of one form or another, and some, such as "In the Company of Men," have included horrific if fascinating forms of manipulation, the work is by no means a surprise.
The plot is simple yet deceivingly complex. In it, a dowdy loser is transformed by his art student girlfriend into an appealing, regular guy, much to the shock and dismay of his best "friends." Why they're so observant of and obsessed with him and his appearance is never credibly addressed beyond them being superficial jerks and/or symbolic elements of the film's message and theme.
While that might not sound like much, LaBute has layered the work so that there's more than initially meets the eye, including a whopper of a twist. I didn't see it coming, although it's not really of the losing one's socks variety.
That said, it will surprise, shock and/or disgust more than a few viewers. I found it - both as it occurred and in hindsight - as one of those developments that probably looked better in theory and on paper than in realized execution.
Some of that's due to LaBute dragging out the revelation far too long. The cat is out of the bag once the scene begins, but for some reason the filmmaker seems to think he's toying with the viewer by prolonging it (either that or he wants us to watch the victim squirm and thus make us uncomfortable as well).
Despite moving the story out of its original proscenium trappings, it still feels like a filmed stage play, although it's not as bad as other such efforts I've seen. Much of that can be attributed to the dialogue and pacing of its delivery thereof.
While some of it's rather witty - involving some fun, back and forth banter - and there are various cultural references here and there (such as that involving "Play Misty For Me" in one instance), other parts of it don't feel or sound natural. Since the majority of the film is dialogue driven, that's somewhat of a big deal, but thankfully it isn't chronic.
It is, however, more confined to the secondary characters played by Frederick Weller ("The Business of Strangers," "Cash Crop") and Gretchen Mol ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Cradle Will Rock"). In essence, Weller is playing the sort of LaBute character formerly embodied by Aaron Eckhart. While similarly venomous, the actor doesn't temper that with enough engaging characteristics as did his predecessor. Playing the less critical of the two, Mol is present mainly as something of a complication for the main characters' relationship.
As those two, Paul Rudd ("Wet Hot American Summer," "The Object of My Affection") and Rachel Weisz ("Confidence," "About a Boy") deliver credible performances as the Doolittle-like makeover candidate and his Prof. Higgins sculptor. While Rudd makes a believable transformation both physically and behaviorally, Weisz gets the meatier and flashier role (particularly when one considers how everything turns out).
The sort of film that might necessitate a second viewing to appreciate it, its structure and the finale better, "The Shape of Things" is undeniably intriguing and even disturbing. Yet, for various reasons, it's clearly not LaBute's most engaging or compelling effort. Accordingly, it rates as a 5 out of 10.