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THE SHAPE OF THINGS

By GUY FLATLEY

CAST: Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, Frederick Weller

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Neil LaBute

Evelyn, a sexy feminist Art major, disapproves of the fig leaf adorning a statue in the campus museum and is about to express her disapproval with a spray can. When another student—a nerd who works part-time as a museum guard—approaches her and attempts to persuade her to put down that can, she throws him a curve. First, she induces him to peep behind the leaf at the concealed bulge of male anatomy, and then she makes it clear that she will do her duty as a feminist and, yes, press the spray button. Obviously, this could be the start of something big. And it is. Soon feminist artiste Evelyn has student/guard Adam in her steel grip, defenseless and spineless as a hunk of clay.

What is this—"American Pie Goes to College"? No, it’s the latest chapter in writer-director Neil LaBute’s chronicle of the war between the sexes. This time, the female (Rachel Weisz as Evelyn) is the venomous aggressor, manipulating, tricking and betraying Adam (Paul Rudd). Here are a few of the things Evelyn does to Adam: she allows him to take a shot at playing the hot stud, but only on the condition that their bedroom romps be videotaped; she sneaks behind his back and lures his best friend into the sack, and then breaks up the friendship; she persuades him to have a nose job he most certainly does not need; and she humiliates him at a college art show by baring the secrets—most notably, the videotaped ones--of their relationship. It’s okay, though, because everything she’s done has been for her thesis. And presumably she gets an A+ for her efforts.

It would be a pleasure, but also a gross distortion of the truth, to report that this portrait of the artist as a young bitch packed the brilliant malice of LaBute’s "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," those twin chamber dramas that prompted us to stand up and scream "male chauvinist pig." Or that it contained even a shred of "Nurse Betty’s" engagingly dark nuttiness. "The Shape of Things," based on LaBute’s modest stage success, comes close to making "Possession," his sappy 2002 misfire, look sharp.

The actors, including Frederick Weller and Gretchen Mol as the cheating friend and his fiancee, do what they can with the humorless, one-dimensional material, but it’s not nearly enough. Let’s hope this nasty, predictable and punishing film is not a portent of things to come from LaBute, who not so long ago seemed to be among our most promising directors.