Aesthetics at Large

'The Shape of Things' examines the relationship between morals and art.

It's interesting that, among the various ideologies and institutions of the 20th century, Nazism got to be the symbol of evil. Communism probably killed more people, and corporate capitalism may have done more long-term, worldwide harm, but it's always the Nazis who are trotted out as the epitome of all things wicked.

I think this has a lot to do with style: The communists and capitalists have the air of gray-suited dullness about them, whereas the Nazis went out of their way to present their iniquity in forceful and arresting visuals, from their flags and insignia to their sharp uniforms. Even their movies have this quality of stylish intensity. Triumph of the Will and Olympia, while hard to respect on moral grounds, are easily two of the greatest films of all time, and are sure proof that high morals and great art needn't necessarily be wedded.

This is essentially the problem tackled in Neil LaBute's latest film, The Shape of Things. The title refers to the emphasis on surface, on art with no depth or ethical underpinnings. In the final sequence, this is hammered home by scene in which "Moralists have no place in an art gallery" is painted in perfect, neat letters on the wall of a tidy little exhibit of pure evil.

Like LaBute's earlier films, Your Friends and Neighbors and especially In the Company of Men, Shape of Things is about petty, interpersonal evil raised to an art form. This is not the thoughtless, minor and passing evil that makes up the majority of human interactions, but rather a calculated evil on a small scale, the attempt to do to someone the worst things allowable by law.

The film begins with Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) in an art gallery, where she is planning on spray painting a penis on a statue of God. Adam (Paul Rudd), a chubby, nerdy security guard and college student, has to step in to stop this, or so he understands the duties of his office. However, Evelyn, being much prettier and more interesting than Adam, convinces him to ask her out instead of stopping her quest to give God the penis he so richly deserves.

This leads to a difficult relationship, because Evelyn is (or at least seems to be) the kind of pretentious art student who thinks paintings made with menstrual blood are important statements about "the whole oppression thing," whereas Adam is a personality-less lickspittle whose best friend Phillip (Fred Weller) is an overbearing and pompous frat boy. Adam, lacking any sense of himself, has pretty much gone along with whatever Phillip said, even though Phillip doesn't say much besides "whatever."

As Adam enters into a relationship with Evelyn, he undergoes a transformation--losing weight, becoming more stylish and confident, and, indeed, becoming somewhat less moral. Paul Rudd does a fabulous job of enacting this change, and even appears to lose weight without actually doing so. As a result of the transformation, Adam's relations with Phillip are strained, and his longing for Phillip's fiancée, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), finally has a chance to express itself.

Since this is essentially a filmed play, the manner of that expression is extremely stagey. It's reminiscent of the earlier films of David Mamet in the almost Brechtian approach to acting, and this style could, no doubt, be annoying to those moviegoers more used to naturalism.

I think it works here, though, because the oddity of the performance and the stiffness of some of the dialogue highlights how painfully human the characters are. In the most uncomfortable sequence, Adam and Jenny flirt like characters from a Thornton Wilder play until you just want to smack them. What makes this work is that, deep down, they are characters from a Thornton Wilder play, oddly innocent and ignorant and unable to express themselves except in cute little hints.

While Jenny and Paul are basically Hummel figurines brought to life, their lovers represent opposite sides of the equation of evil, from the calculating Evelyn to the careless Phillip. They struggle for the souls of their weaker counterparts, and in the end, it's clear who the winner is.

The end, in fact, is one of the most chilling things you'll ever see, and if you find yourself dreadfully annoyed by the first two-thirds of the movie, at least stick it out to see where it's going. All of the insipid art-school dialogue gets redeemed in the final moments, when a fascist ideal is realized. It may not be Triumph of the Will, but Shape of Things is chilling and intense, and it'll stick with you for a long time after you leave the peaceful darkness of the theater.