Why do you like me?” the pathologically uncool college student Adam (Paul Rudd) asks his predatory girlfriend, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), early in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Then he adds the kicker: “I’m not anything.” Adam is practically the Über-dweeb. His name alone symbolizes his status; he’s the first among men, and a sorry lot they are. LaBute’s debut film, In the Company of Men, was widely viewed as a condemnation of male privilege—the men in the movie systematically burnished and then dismantled the soul of an unsuspecting wallflower—and The Shape of Things, which began its life as a stage play, is being touted as that film’s companion piece. This time out, a ravenous female tears apart the woebegone male. LaBute would like us to know that neither sex has a monopoly on behaving very, very badly. Alert the media!
Evelyn first meets Adam in the campus art museum, where he moonlights as a guard. A libertine with an agenda, she wants to deface a male statue where the genitals have been strategically covered up. Cowed but awed, Adam looks the other way. Evelyn is working on her M.F.A. in art, and she takes up Adam as a personal cause, eventually seducing him into a total makeover—he drops pounds, gets a nose job, dresses smartly, and even, at her coaxing, distances himself from his best friends, Philip (Frederick Weller), a former roommate who takes an instant dislike to Evelyn, and Philip’s fiancée, Jenny (Gretchen Mol), who has become a soul mate for Adam. Throughout it all, we are made to wonder why Evelyn and Adam are together. He tells her she’s pretty amazing, but his entrancement is presented as a species of delusion. Perhaps they are supposed to be the classic couple whose mismatch represents the perfect match.
"Director Neil LaBute may think he's laying it on the line for us, but his cold, hard truths about human behavior aren't exactly eye-openers."
Maybe they also represent an extreme example of how two people in a relationship can rejigger their psyches. But because their relationship is so airless and contrived—so devoid of the messiness of any true give- and-take—it never hits home emotionally. LaBute is attacking our society’s obsession with the surface of things, whether it be a painter’s canvas or a human one, but his drama is, in itself, relentlessly superficial. What really seems to be going on is that LaBute, for all his vaunted knowingness and sophistication, is venting his bile on the culture of modernism. He’s a scold posing as a provocateur, and his martinet’s touch is especially pronounced in the performances, which seem overcalibrated even when one considers that the same actors already performed their roles in London and Off Broadway prior to filming. The avant-garde world is castigated in The Shape of Things as a funhouse of moral decadence where artists chew up and spit out people mercilessly in their art. But, in his plays and in his movies based on his own material, LaBute is fond of utilizing people as glorified puppets in order to prop up his misanthropic theses. There’s a clinical severity to his method, and a fatuousness, too: He may think he’s laying it on the line for us, but his cold, hard truths about human behavior aren’t exactly eye-openers. For him, grand revelations about the depravities of men and women are the end points of drama. For a better artist, they would only be the starting point.
When it comes to showing off humanity’s ills, X2: X-Men United is much more effective than LaBute’s film—even if the humanity on view is chockablock with mutants. The old standbys from the first X-Men movie are on hand, including Hugh Jackman’s stiletto-armed Wolverine and Ian McKellen’s murderously droll Magneto (incarcerated in an all-plastic prison). As the shape-shifting Mystique, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos gratifyingly morphs into her very own svelte self in a scene that might have been filched from Femme Fatale. None of these X-ers seem any happier this time. Such is the fate of those condemned to be outcasts inhabiting a movie franchise. The best new addition to the corp is Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler. His pointy ears, yellow eyes, and blue skin make him the most creepily beautiful presence in the pageant. In an effort to be true to the movie’s Marvel Comics origins, director Bryan Singer has accompanied Nightcrawler’s teleportations with the comic-approved sound effect bampf! (This according to my press notes.) To my ears, it sounded more like pffft! But then again, I was having trouble with my hearing after Siryn, a new addition, unleased her eardrum-shattering supersonic scream. If the theater you see X2 in features one of those mega-decibel spots for its Dolby sound system, you might want to wad yourself with cotton beforehand.
Patrice Leconte’s Man on a Train plays out a Patricia Highsmith–like premise: Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a companionable, retired schoolteacher living alone in a French provincial town, accepts into his rundown estate a gruff gangster, Milan (Johnny Hallyday), who is planning to rob a local bank and has nowhere else to lodge. Improbably, the two hit it off; each perceives in the other the life he might have lived had things gone differently. Milan teaches Manesquier how to shoot a pistol, and the instructor responds with poetry recitations. I know this sounds precious—it is precious—but the actors are such opposites in style and temperament that their pairing is made to seem emblematic. As in many a French movie, especially crime movie, the philosophe and the crook turn out to be each other’s mirror image.
Most music documentaries go in for too much jabber and not enough performance. Not so Only the Strong Survive, which showcases some of the best soul and R&B singers from the late sixties and early seventies—Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore, Jerry Butler, Ann Peebles, Mary Wilson, the Chi-Lites, Isaac Hayes, the late Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla—and lets them loose. Directors D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, with the assistance of journalist (and former New York contributor) Roger Friedman, understand that the best way for these people to tell their story is ultimately through their sound. This is no antique show: Faced with an audience, they are still amazingly vital and sometimes amazingly lewd. When Rufus Thomas wails “Walking the Dog,” you know exactly what it is he’s walking.