LaBute Back in Form, Alas

By Fernando F. Croce

"Moralists have no place in an art gallery."

The quote, from Chinese writer Han Suyin, is featured prominently near the end of writer-director Neil LaBute's latest poison-candy offering, The Shape of Things. By then, I had had so many "artistic insights" snapped at me like wet towels that philistinism may start looking pretty good by comparison.

An adaptation of LaBute's 2001 play set in a college town, the film uses as its arc the course of a relationship over a period of time. Adam (Paul Rudd), a doughy, dorky English undergraduate, falls for Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an attractive art student he first meets as she's about to deface a museum statue with a can of spray paint. As their romance seemingly blooms, Evelyn's presence molds Adam's appearance: his doltish, bespectacled demeanor dissolves into a slimmer, sleekly handsome one (including a detour into minor plastic surgery), much to the surprise and confusion of his chums, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phil (Fred Weller). Feeling more assured, Adam flirts with the idea of romancing Jenny, on whom he's had a crush before she got engaged to the obnoxious Phil. Given an ultimatum by the increasingly possessive Evelyn, he chooses her over his friends -- unaware of how cruelly pivotal a role he will play in her mysterious art thesis.

LaBute, a critics' darling since his 1997 Sundance Film Festival debut with In the Company of Men, has gotten over the years a reputation as a lacerating provocateur with piercing truths about modern relationships. That strikes me as wishful thinking, to put it mildly. A more accurate look at his work displays a gift for showcasing human nastiness, which gives it its surface validity while severely limiting it at the same time. Lack of personal connection is the meat of his course. The relationships in his films are invariably doomed by the characters' failure to strike meaningful bonds with each other -- his filmmaking, blandly elegant, emphasizes medium shots with characters separated either by the editing or, within a long take, by a background vertical (posts, trees, poles).

In the place of positive, constructive give-and-take, there is a cultivated meanness dripping from every pore of life, whether in casual bouts of verbal jostling or in elaborately arranged machinations. The opening museum meet-cute, with its repellently glib Will & Grace humor (typical gem -- Evelyn spray paints her phone number on Adam's jacket), is just a facetious mask under which gruesome malice lurks. Which might be just as well, since LaBute has proven again and again to be utterly incapable of displaying delicacy or a sense of emotional fullness on the screen (hence the dismal failures of Nurse Betty and Possession, his two previous "life-affirming" films). Instead, he works with an icy surgeon's eye, moving the couples around mathematically, presiding over his creatures like a dispassionate scientist.

In that sense, LaBute purports to shoulder nothing less than the burden of an alienated world, a notion that links him to the revenge-of-the-nerd caricatures of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) as well as the torture chambers of Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher). Also like them, however, the savagery in his films seems to spring less from any radical desire to change than from a truckload of personal neurosis. LaBute's "monsters" -- Aaron Eckhart in In the Company of Men, Jason Patric in Your Friends & Neighbors, Weisz here -- exist theoretically as extensions of a world where feeling has curdled, yet so little of this world is actually seen that one has a hard time connecting them to a larger picture. (One of the most provocative ideas of his debut, the braiding of emotional brutality with corporate capitalism, has since been discarded.)

The result is not the eye-opening expansion of understanding that so many critics have hailed, but rather a willful reduction of the possibilities of human interaction. Life is distilled to its most negative, emerging as petty, insecure, manipulative, full of suspicion and hate -- the kind of facile worldview that, in the long run, makes his work barren and puny. Obviously, that's not to say that art needs to be light and likable. After all, figures as varied as William Blake, August Strindberg, Pablo Picasso, Ingmar Bergman and the Rolling Stones have amassed magnificent works out of the notion that art should disturb, using it to enlarge our worldview by undermining the certainties of life.

By contrast, LaBute in The Shape of Things continues to purvey mordant shocks not as the jumping-off point for wider explorations, but as an excuse to freely indulge in the most fashionable misanthropy. Make no mistake about it -- the nihilistic poseur's stretched middle finger at the film's climax is aimed straight at his critics, as well as his audience. "If you feel it, it's not stupid," Adam at one point tells Jenny. The problem with LaBute is that, following his own advice, he cannot help but find everything stupid.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on May 6, 2003.

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