The Films of Neil LaBute
In the Company of Men
Your Friends & Neighbors
The Shape of Things (May 15/03)
After essentially working as a director-for-hire on Nurse Betty and Possession, The Shape of Things marks Neil LaBute's return to his own material. Like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, The Shape of Things introduces us to a variety of characters that - through the course of the film - turn out to be far more complex than we ever could've imagined. The storyline revolves around a nice guy (Paul Rudd's Adam) who slowly but surely begins to change his physical appearance after he starts dating a beautiful woman (Rachel Weisz's Evelyn), much to the chagrin of concerned friends Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Philip (Frederick Weller). Part of what makes The Shape of Things work as well as it does - though LaBute's In the Company of Men still remains his most accomplished and riveting film - is LaBute's undeniable ear for dialogue. The key to LaBute's success is his seemingly effortless ability to write dialogue that sounds the way people talk. There are some instances in which it sounds forced, usually involving expository matters, but that's to be expected from a filmed play. With The Shape of Things, LaBute's done a fantastic job of creating four distinct characters who aren't easily identifiable. Though it may initially seem like we know exactly who to root for, as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that that's just not the case. And by the time the end rolls around, LaBute's created a situation in which we've got to re-examine what we've just seen; it's only then do we completely understand the motivations of all the players. Of course, LaBute's screenplay would mean nothing if he hadn't populated the flick with some excellent actors, and he's done exactly that. It probably doesn't hurt that each of these four actors originated their roles on the London stage, where they performed The Shape of Things for about a year. There isn't a weak link in this cast, and Rudd (in particular) is a standout. Best known for playing Phoebe's boyfriend Mike on Friends, Rudd is once again playing an affable nice guy - but there's a lot more to Adam than we might originally suspect. Aside from an astoundingly vitriolic speech near the end of the film, Adam is the sort of person that just wants to be liked by everyone around him. There's a sequence in which his two friends finally meet Evelyn, and even though it's quite clear her beliefs mean nothing to Philip, Adam tries his best to keep the peace. Rudd is incredibly likable in this role, which makes the final revelation that much harder to take. Weisz is just as good as Evelyn, a character that spends virtually the entire film straddling the line between good and evil; we're not quite sure whether she's changing Adam for his benefit or hers until the very end, and Weisz does a nice job of portraying that duality. Mol and Weller are effective as the two friends, with Weller providing the film's comic relief as an almost over-the-top alpha male. LaBute is at his best when examining humanity through his pessimistic point-of-view, and though his downbeat perspective might be a little overwhelming for some viewers, it's certainly a welcome breather from the comparatively light tone of most movies. The Shape of Things is the kind of movie that'll leave the viewer thinking and talking about it for hours afterwards, and for that alone, it deserves some recognition.
The Wicker Man
The Wicker Man is - initially, anyway - a surprisingly faithful remake of Robin Hardy's 1973 horror classic, as writer/director Neil LaBute apes the original's painfully deliberate build-up and overall vibe of aimlessness. But LaBute's decision to place the emphasis on increasingly campy elements ultimately transforms the film into a strangely compelling piece of work, and there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of Nicolas Cage's almost absurdly over-the-top performance. Cast as policeman Edward Malus, Cage doesn't show even a hint of restraint throughout much of The Wicker Man's running time; it's consequently not surprising to note that Cage's work here has already started to garner a cult following, as there's just something inherently entertaining about watching the actor one-up himself every few minutes (ie first he cold-cocks an unsuspecting woman, then he cold-cocks an unsuspecting woman while clad in a bear suit). Stripped of Cage's broad shenanigans, The Wicker Man would clearly not come off nearly as well as it does - although, to be fair, LaBute does manage to improve on the original's downbeat conclusion (ie Malus' inability to escape from his situation makes much more sense this time around).
Essentially a less trashy spin on Unlawful Entry, Lakeview Terrace revolves around the chaos that ensues after an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson's Chris and Kerry Washington's Lisa) moves in next door to racist police officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Director Neil LaBute has imbued the proceedings with a deliberate pace that effectively reflects the laid-back sensibilities of David Loughery and Howard Korder's screenplay, and while it's been saddled with a premise straight out of an over-the-top thriller, Lakeview Terrace primarily comes off as a straight drama that's been suffused with an undercurrent of racial tension. The plotless, almost episodic structure of the script ensures that the movie, though consistently entertaining, boasts an uneven vibe that proves impossible to overlook, as there's little doubt that certain sequences ultimately fare a great deal better than others - which, coupled with a distinctly overlong running time, plays a significant role in the increasingly erratic atmosphere. Still, it's impossible to deny the effectiveness of Jackson's intense, unexpectedly complex performance - as the actor does a superb job of ensuring that his character never quite comes off as just another garden-variety cinematic psycho (right up until the lamentably overblown conclusion, anyway). And although the whole thing unfolds in a manner that'll hardly come as a surprise to those with even a cursory knowledge of these sorts of movies, Lakeview Terrace generally lives up to its broadly-conceived premise and should satisfy fans of "(fill in the blank) from hell" thrillers.
Death at a Funeral
Based on the British comedy of the same name, Death at a Funeral follows several characters as they arrive at a suburban funeral home to lay one of their own to rest - with the peaceful ceremony interrupted by a series of increasingly preposterous happenings. There's little doubt that Death at a Funeral, for the most part, comes off as a carbon copy of its admittedly superior predecessor, as director Neil LaBute places an ongoing emphasis on situations and comedic set-pieces that will seem quite familiar to fans of the 2007 original. It's interesting to note, however, that despite the almost identical nature of the two movies, Death at a Funeral is simply unable to match its inspiration in terms of either pacing or laughs - with Chris Rock's expectedly underwhelming performance ultimately exacerbating the film's problems (ie Rock is simply unable to become his character to any reasonable degree of success). The likeable supporting cast - which includes, among others, Danny Glover, Zoe Saldana, and James Marsden - consequently goes a long way towards keeping things interesting even through the narrative's frequent lulls, and it's impossible to deny that the movie does possess a number of genuinely hilarious bits of over-the-top comedy (with many of the film's laughs courtesy of Peter Dinklage's stellar turn as a mysterious guest). The end result is a perfectly watchable piece of work that'll probably have a more positive impact on viewers unfamiliar with Frank Oz's original, as Death at a Funeral ultimately stands as the latest in an increasingly long line of needless remakes.
Some Velvet Morning
Given that it marks Neil LaBute's first original screenplay since 2003's The Shape of Things, Some Velvet Morning can't help but come off as a massive disappointment - as the film, though armed with LaBute's typically caustic point of view, suffers from a pervasively artificial feel that holds the viewer at arms length throughout. It's worth noting, too, that the movie, which details a very long conversation/argument between Alice Eve's Velvet and Stanley Tucci's Fred, gets off to a disappointingly underwhelming start, with LaBute setting a tone of rather disastrous staginess right from the outset (ie there's an emphasis on dialogue that feels forced and unnatural). The actors are, as a result and for the most part, unable to convincingly step into the shoes of their respective characters, and it does become more and more difficult to work up any real interest in or enthusiasm for Velvet and Fred's increasingly virulent encounter. (It doesn't help, either, that LaBute holds off on explaining just what their relationship is to one another, which ensures that the early part of the proceedings suffers from a palpable lack of context.) The nifty twist that concludes the proceedings provides an all-too-temporary bump in the viewer's interest, but it is, in the end, impossible to label Some Velvet Morning as a talky effort that simply doesn't add up to anything interesting or even relevant.