There's two ways to look at Neil LaBute's latest examination of the fetid human psyche - either he's back doing what he does best or it's a disappointing regression.
He's certainly playing it safe after being burned over his lacklustre adaptation of AS Byatt's novel Possession. For starters, The Shape Of Things is another cruel, callous take on the battle of the sexes, any glimmer of humanity blacked out by the end credits. Secondly, it's based on his own stage play, a critical hit on both sides of the pond. This is material that LaBute knows inside out.
Reprising their stage roles, Paul Rudd is overweight, under-confident English student Adam, the beleaguered friend of preppy Phillip (Fred Weller) and his fiancée Jenny (Gretchen Mol). Then he meets militant art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and everything changes. Locating a grain of self-worth that Evelyn nurtures, his new inner assurance is reflected on the outside: weight loss, contact lenses, modish clothes...
To say anymore would be to rob LaBute of his ace card, though anyone who's seen the stage version will already know how each of the four characters' hands play out. Let's just say it's spectacular and a repeat viewing confirms just how cleverly - not to mention cheekily - the writer/director clicks all his pieces into place. The movie's made doubly fascinating by the fact that this is LaBute defending his own much-maligned work, his decision to make Evelyn a controversial artist allowing him to argue his own sticky corner.
Trouble is, Shape makes for better theatre than cinema, its precision plotting and finely tuned dialogue feeling too crafted, too mannered, for the screen. The theatricality is further stressed by only making a half-hearted effort to open the play up, and by refusing to unshackle the camera for more than a cursory pan. Nurse Betty's stop-start fluency indicated that this talented writer was hesitantly mastering the language of cinema; this suggests he now needs to go back to school and brush up on his screen vocabulary.
A riff on his 1997 debut In The Company Of Men, Neil LaBute's fifth cinematic outing fails to transcend its stage origins but boasts professional performances and a strong script. In every sense.