Women On Top In LaBute’s Latest

Neil LaBute wants to clear it up: The provocative, critically respected, commercially successful (sort of) writer-director whose controversial but acclaimed cinematic sexism called feminists to arms over In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors wants you to know he is not a misogynist. In his new film, The Shape of Things , he sets out to prove that women are not always victims. Fueled by new freedoms, empowered by a new sense of social order and equality, they can be just as dangerous, deceitful and destructive to the opposite sex as men. Wait a sec. Did I say Mr. LaBute is no misogynist? The woman at the center of The Shape of Things , played by Rachel Weisz, who originated the role Off Broadway and also produced the film, is the kind of demonic ball-breaker who gives women a bad rap (although some of them will applaud her ruthlessness) and makes Mr. LaBute look like a man who still hates women, or distrusts them, or fearing their evolution all the way back to Eve, just wants to get even for what happened in the Garden of Eden.

The Shape of Things is staged as a series of short-story-like sketches about the progressive mating rituals of four college friends. The Adam-and-Eve issue resonates from the get-go when Adam and Evelyn-get it?-meet cute in the campus museum, where nebbishy Adam (Paul Rudd) encounters aggressive women’s-rights activist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) with a can of spray paint, defacing a nude male statue wearing a big fig leaf. Adam is a rumpled, fig-shaped English student with a good-natured, boyish charm and a rating of zero in the hunk department. Evelyn is a grad student and conceptual artist with an endless supply of attention-getting shock-value schemes (for one of her exhibits, she displays pictures of her father painted with her own menstrual blood). When she gives Adam her phone number by spray-painting it into the lining of his prize corduroy jacket, the intrigue of infatuation turns to the promise of love. Little does Adam know how much this relationship is going to change his life forever. He goes right out and gets her initials tattooed on his privates. Doomed, buddy. Just over the fence in the direction of self-immolation.

In the way we all want to improve ourselves to please another person, especially in the grip of a new relationship, Adam’s attempts to appear more desirable to Evelyn produce immediate results, to the horror of his soon-to-be-married best friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phillip (Fred Weller). Adam, who has never seen the inside of a gym, starts working on his abs, loses 27 pounds and his double chin, gets his nose fixed, chucks his egghead glasses for contact lenses and begins to look like a Bowflex ad. Phil, who takes an instant aversion to Evelyn, knows a fish when he smells one. Jenny, who has always been vulnerable, simplistic and utterly without guile, suddenly finds herself sexually attracted to the new Adam, while Phil, who always wore the pants, freaks with insecurity. Having wrecked Phil’s faith in Jenny, Evelyn then seduces Phil, dashing Jenny’s hopes for a reconciliation. This girl is indefatigable. Having already wrought havoc on the lives of her friends, her coup de grâce is at last rendered with the grand unveiling of her master’s thesis -a gallery show with Adam’s transformation from geek to sex toy as its theme. She’s already changed him so much he no longer knows his own identity, but what really hurts is how and why she did it. The coaxing, manipulation and honing masked a hidden agenda. Playing her boyfriend as a modern-day take on the Pygmalion theme had nothing to do with love. She didn’t really care whether Adam’s waist was a 36 or a 30. She just had an obsession with the “shape of things,” with no concern for the hidden heart. And she has no regrets. He was an experiment, a school project. But what about Adam? Seduced and abandoned, and nailed by the ugly truth of his own stupidity, Adam finally knows what women have known for centuries-how it feels to be screwed and tattooed.

The four rock-solid actors are recreating the roles they played in both the London and New York Off Broadway productions of The Shape of Things . They know the territory, and it shows. They make a first-rate quartet, thrusting and parrying until they draw blood. Ms. Weisz sports the same lack of chemistry with Mr. Rudd that she just showed opposite Edward Burns in the dismal Confidence , but this time it makes sense. Mr. LaBute’s cool, controlled writing is matched by his suave direction. I found it absorbing, stark and entertaining. Still, this movie will not appeal to everyone. It’s a cynical film about superficial people who are more concerned with surfaces than feelings. And like In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors , it’s not clear what the point of it all really is. In Mr. LaBute’s own transformation, the jury is still out. Usually the men in his films cruelly destroy the women. In The Shape of Things , the women callously destroy the men, but you end up hating them for it.

Is there such a thing as a closet misogynist?

Swinging Songstress

The professional practitioners of the fading art of the American popular song are dying off so fast that when a thrush like Keely Smith comes to town, it’s become both a duty and a treat to honor her. At Feinstein’s at the Regency, where she’s currently celebrating her swinging new CD tribute to Count Basie (through May 17), her presence is, in the absence of so much real cabaret joy, more welcome than ever. The night I dropped in, she was felled by the generic New York spring allergies the rest of us take for granted all year long. Pollen took its toll on her voice, creating pitch problems, but this fine lady’s lifetime of experience and savvy makes vocal hurdles surmountable. Unimpeachably reliable, she’ll be back to normal in no time. Accompanied by nine rock-solid musicians and enhanced by a synthesizer for string effects, Keely doesn’t try to duplicate the Basie band, but instead investigates what some of her favorite evergreens would sound like today if arranged in the Basie style. This includes a few by Duke Ellington. The Count plays the Duke? You gotta hear it to dig how cool it gets. In a hot-griddle tempo on “Cherokee” or in a subdued glow on the gorgeous “One at a Time” by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Ms. Smith epitomizes quality. No frills, no book, no history lessons about who wrote what and to whom they were married the day they wrote it-just straight-ahead singing that holds a song in her grasp like the target in the scope of a rifle. Warm and down-home natural, her timing and timbre have defied the passage of time, and she can still sing the socks off a set of lyrics. She’s still funny in her direct, dark-eyed, Cherokee Indian stare, and I’m happy to report that her davenport drawl is very much intact. (“Yew go to mah head … I never knew the chom of spring … never knew my hot could sing …. “) In the section of her act devoted to the old charts she sang with her late husband and performing partner. Louis Prima, when they were the King and Queen of Las Vegas, the audience positively rocks with the volcanic heat from “Just a Gigolo,” “That Old Black Magic” and her theme song, “I Wish You Love.” At 75, Keely Smith still does it all remarkably well. I just wish she’d fly in from California and do it more often.

Tribeca Treasure

Except as a noble excuse to revitalize a section of town still licking its wounds since 9/11, the Tribeca Film Festival is something of a mystery. A one-day onslaught of every kind of movie imaginable-from a Hong Kong horror flick, a trio of dramas from France featuring the same set of characters, the usual parade of AIDS documentaries, and a movie about Martha Graham with the duenna of dance played by a man, to old curiosities from Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy-this eclectic Chinese menu, now in its second year and still searching for a unifying theme, is too far from where I live and work for me to become a regular. However, from the half-dozen entries that I’ve seen to be unveiled there between now and May 11, there is one film I heartily recommend. Soldier’s Girl is a must-see.

Frank Pierson, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Dog Day Afternoon, is the director, and Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the devastating and memorable Philadelphia, is the writer of this compassionate and very disturbing true story about Pvt. Barry Winchell (Troy Garity), an American G.I. who fell in love with a transsexual nightclub entertainer named Calpernia Addams, and the emotional havoc their secret relationship unleashed on the Army base where Winchell was stationed. Anti-gay sentiments fueled by ignorance and fear led to his eventual brutal and shocking murder on July 5, 1999, bludgeoned with a baseball bat by a drunken fellow soldier. This extraordinary film catalogs the details of a heinous crime that made headlines and rocked the military, but it also probes deeply into the complex lives of the people involved, admirably resisting all clichés.

When Barry Winchell arrived at Fort Campbell, Ky., to train as a gunner in the Airborne Infantry, he was quiet, stolid, clumsy and learning-disabled. He couldn’t read the manuals; he lagged behind in everything from pushups to the handling of his weapon. Barry was gentle, backward, a real hick. He was also straight. Thrown together with Justin Fisher (masterfully played by Shawn Hatosy), a wild roommate obsessed with Mafia movies, gung-ho military bonding and raising hell, Barry was lured to a nearby club called Visions in Nashville, where he first met Calpernia, a beautiful performer in the pre-operative stages of a complete transgender transformation.

Calpernia is no pile of clichés, either. She was formerly a Navy combat medic who ran a field hospital in Desert Storm, was honorably discharged, and moved back to her hometown of Nashville to change her life and sex. Barry’s decency and insecurity were honed by Calpernia’s sweetness, grace and honesty into something strangely called happiness. But Fisher, the Iago in the triangle, was too neurotic and tortured by his own sexual confusion to handle the jealousy Barry’s personal life aroused in him. Violent, lonely, rejected by women (including several ex-wives), and driven to rage by pills and alcohol, Fisher orchestrated the fights and insults between Barry and the other men in his barracks. Eventually, Fisher befriended a new arrival named Calvin Glover, a teenage skinhead from Oklahoma who should have been in prison-and was, in any case, too young to be admitted to the U.S. military. On the night when Calpernia won the Miss Tennessee Entertainer of the Year Pageant, back at the barracks Fisher goaded the moronic Glover into beating Barry to death while he was sleeping. The film cuts back and forth between the pointless savagery of the killing and Calpernia onstage under the lights, smiling happily while thinking of Barry and sexily lip-synching “Cold” by Annie Lennox. Her triumph and his demise occur simultaneously. Shaken when she hears the news of her lover’s death on TV, then wracked with guilt, Calpernia is left shattered and alone, while the killers are court-martialed, still unable to believe that what they did could have gone so wrong. It’s a tragic story, and Messrs. Pierson and Nyswaner had the support and technical advice of Barry Winchell’s parents and the real Calpernia Addams-all of whom feel the military bears some responsibility and should be held accountable for Barry’s unjust and unnecessary death.

In guiding this tense, fascinating and borderline-lurid story to maximum power, the filmmakers also had the good fortune to find two of the year’s most courageous and unforgettable actors to play the star-crossed lovers. Troy Garity, the son of actress Jane Fonda and political activist Tom Hayden, looks nothing like his mother, but he has the same blazing intensity and open-faced honesty and sensitivity. He not only has the task of playing a heterosexual man plunged into a love affair that is considered anything but normal; he also has to work with a Southern accent and seem slightly retarded, yet charming and appealing to both sexes. The real challenge is met with career-changing force by Lee Pace as Calpernia. Mr. Pace is an actor fresh out of Juilliard who gave up the gym, lost weight, grew soft curves, wore wigs and special breast prosthetics, and deserves a medal for bravery. All of their scenes together are hauntingly real, but the nude love scenes are amazingly fearless-completely convincing, never exploitative, but downright erotic as sin. Soldier’s Girl also gives you something important to think about. While serving as an obvious indictment of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding sexual orientation, it also has something sobering and depressing to say about the kind of disqualified people who are serving in the armed forces today. Every soldier in Barry Winchell’s barracks was semi-retarded, and that’s not a fabrication. The script explains how some of them got there in the first place. It’s not pretty.

Ultimately, this is a grand surprise. The work of everyone involved results in a film that is far above and beyond the usual lunk-headed fodder we get these days. Doubly odd, then, that like the recent groundbreaker Normal, Soldier’s Girl is also scheduled to be shown on cable TV, not in commercial theaters. If you miss it at the Tribeca Film Festival, set your VCRs or plan an evening around Soldier’s Girl when it’s broadcast on Saturday, May 31, on Showtime. Risk missing it at your own peril.