"Women. Nice ones, the most frigid of the race, it doesn't matter in the end. Inside, they're all the same: meat and gristle and hatred, just simmering." Coming from the forked tongue of an alpha-male executive in Neil LaBute's acrid black comedy In The Company Of Men, sentiments like these provoke uncomfortable laughter, because audience members keep a safe distance from the characters and their ugly philosophies. But as a dedicated misanthrope, LaBute likes to get into the meat and gristle of human behavior, the base and dishonorable instincts that are discreetly veiled behind civil politesse. At once powerful and reductive in its simplicity, The Shape Of Things puts a few more specimens under the microscope, returning LaBute to the familiar terrain of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors–a highly theatrical space where people are capable of astonishing cruelty. Rather than expand his original play for the screen, LaBute frames the action in a series of crisply composed tableaux connected by snippets from Elvis Costello songs; the result looks like a particularly nasty piece of performance art, rather than a realistic portrait of campus mores. To a certain extent, each character comes across as overdetermined and false, starting with Paul Rudd, whose initial appearance as a paunchy, hopelessly awkward museum guard turns the handsome actor into something closer to Marlon Brando in The Godfather. When Rudd encounters Rachel Weisz, a rebellious, free-spirited grad student at their private college, she sees hidden potential in him and gradually works to mold him into an attractive and desirable lover. Soon enough, Rudd sheds 21 pounds, replaces his coke-bottle glasses with contact lenses, exchanges his drab corduroys for Tommy Hilfiger, and even gets a nose job to complete his transformation. Though the sudden changes make him feel happier and healthier, they also draw suspicion from his friends Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller, who are curious about Weisz's underlying motivations. Much like In The Company Of Men, The Shape Of Things spends most of its time laying the groundwork for a startling payoff, which packs a wallop once it finally arrives. But in retrospect, the strong ending makes everything that preceded it seem all the more narrow and schematic, centered on characters whose behavior fits into the grand design, but otherwise lacks the dimension to be considered fully human. (In a typical scene, LaBute overplays Rudd and Mol's infantile puppy love by having them kiss on a playground.) As the title implies, The Shape Of Things carries a potent statement about the superficialities of appearance, and how they're more meaningful to people than anyone likes to acknowledge. But when the players themselves are conceived this superficially, LaBute winds up invalidating his own point.