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Neil LaBute fans may have been wondering if the director’s recent work with the likes of Gwyneth and Renée has permanently dulled his formerly razorlike approach to writing about the battle of the sexes. After all, his two most recent features, Possession and Nurse Betty, shared a certain, well, agreeable quality.

That’s not exactly the adjective that comes to mind when you think about the two pictures LaBute made his reputation with: 1997’s In the Company of Men and the following year’s Your Friends & Neighbors. There were a few flashes of the old black humor in his two bigger-budget efforts, but on the whole they were highly megaplex-friendly—which probably had a lot to do with the fact that in both cases LaBute was working with somebody else’s material.

The Shape of Things, LaBute’s fans will be happy to discover, finds the director back in his comfort zone as a maniacal, take-no-prisoners auteur. Based on his play of the same name, which opened in London and New York in 2001, the film is every bit as nasty as LaBute’s first two movies. Maybe nastier. It certainly left me with an unsettled feeling. In fact, after the screening, I went home, went to sleep, and fell into a horrible dream that involved my wife’s making me the object of a mind-bending, Machiavellian scheme—which is all I’m going to say about the twist that awaits viewers at the finish.

The movie begins inside a high-ceilinged art gallery at fictional Mercy College, whose campus appears to be a sunnier, smaller version of Brigham Young, where the 40-year-old LaBute went to school in the early ’80s. There, cute young MFA student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), can of spray paint in hand, is getting ready to deface an oversized classical sculpture whose penis has been discreetly covered with a bit of plaster. Actually, “reface” might be a better word, because she’s there to paint a new penis right on top of the fig leaf. She’s discovered by Adam (Paul Rudd), a schlumpy English major who works as a guard at the museum. After persuading Evelyn to back at least a step or two away from the statue, he eventually works up enough courage to ask her to dinner. She accepts by spray-painting her phone number on the inside of his brown corduroy jacket.

They start going out. Over the next several weeks, she proceeds, metaphorically at least, to spray-paint a huge phallus on Adam—giving him a severe makeover that transforms him from overweight loser to confident, even swaggering Lothario-in-training. He loses 20 pounds, donates the brown coat to Goodwill, and eventually lets Evelyn convince him he needs a nose job. When she challenges him to drop his best friends—a couple named Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Frederick Weller) who are the only other characters in the script—he quickly agrees.

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As Evelyn herself points out, the story of the girlfriend who molds her boyfriend a little too aggressively can be found in nearly every issue of Cosmopolitan. And anybody who sees the movie will start to recognize in Adam and Evelyn either themselves or a couple they know. (Indeed, even their names suggest that there’s something of them in every one of us.) But Evelyn goes pretty quickly from trying to change Adam’s haircut to attempting to mold his entire moral outlook. As LaBute keeps slowly and methodically turning the screws, the formerly wide-open and naturalistic world inhabited by his characters begins to feel as constricted and artificial as the Biosphere.

That pressurization seems to justify LaBute’s decision not to expand the story beyond the four characters who made up the stage version: Fewer relationships and people mean fewer chances for that intensity to leak away. Indeed, The Shape of Things remains very much a filmed play. There isn’t a whole lot of action or even visual sophistication in LaBute’s approach, save for the notable use of background color in the movie’s final scene.

But if this is a static, talky movie, its talk is unusually clever. And because the four actors are reprising their performances from both the London and New York stage versions, they seem unusually comfortable in their roles, even in the most digressive or squirm-inducing passages. Weller gets most of the movie’s big laughs as a good-looking lout who always wears his sunglasses on top of his head, but he has a little trouble ironing out the unusual, somewhat stilted rhythms of LaBute’s dialogue. You get used to it, though: After a few minutes, the Mamet-lite cadences are hardly noticeable.

As the object of Evelyn’s manipulations, Rudd shows again that he’s one of the most underrated actors of his generation. He’s a bit too introspective onscreen to be a major star, but maybe that’s a good thing: I’d much rather watch him in a movie like this one than trying to lend some intelligence to Pearl Harbor. Wearing a prosthetic nose and double chin, he overdoes the nerdy qualities early on, but he manages the transition to cute boy without losing his innate awkwardness.

Though Adam is the one undergoing the dramatic transformation, Evelyn stands at the center of the movie. And despite an occasional struggle with her American accent, Weisz is remarkable in the role, as good at exposing Evelyn’s grad-school pretensions as she is at revealing the character’s wily smarts. (Note, for instance, her thoroughly sophomoric defense of Karen Finley-style performance art, which she gives to Adam while digging into a carton of ice cream with a spoon.)

LaBute has said that he began this script after hearing criticism that In the Company of Men was nothing more than high-end misogyny; like Mamet, he heard that he wasn’t capable of writing strong female characters. Here, he’s certainly not shy about making the effort: The Shape of Things’ script is full of references to the most powerful females in the dramatic canon, including several to Medea, and one scene near the end takes place in front of a poster advertising a campus production of Hedda Gabler.

Despite all that, a case could be made that Evelyn descends into caricatured evil by the movie’s close, or even that she simply apes a kind of masculine cruelty—that she is less like Medea than like the chauvinists of In the Company of Men squeezed into a skirt and tight T-shirt. Still, there’s no doubt that Evelyn enjoys the upper hand, in both senses of that verb, from start to finish. And as my subconscious proved, Weisz’s portrayal of her is nothing if not frighteningly memorable. CP