The Shape of Things<br></br>American Cousins<br></br>Shoreditch<br></br>Trilogy: Two<br></br>The Cuckoo<br></br>Gunshy

A very thin body of work
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The Independent Culture

The only value of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (15) is as an object lesson in the differences between a play and a film. While it needn't be a problem in the theatre if, for instance, the actors are older than their characters, or if their mannerisms are exaggerated, or if there is a grand total of just four speaking parts, or if there are long stretches of artfully constructed, thematically focused dialogue, in the cinema these traits can be crippling - and The Shape of Things has them all. The thing has had almost no reshaping since it premiered as a stage play in London two years ago.

But whatever the medium, the film/play is schematic and thin. It's set on a Californian university campus, where a frumpy boy (Paul Rudd) lands a beautiful, dynamic art student (Rachel Weisz) as a girlfriend. A scene or two later he's losing weight and buying trendier clothes, a transformation that concerns his engaged friends, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller. If you've seen LaBute's far better In The Company of Men, you'll guess that as Rudd gets handsome, things get ugly, but because Weisz is established as a stupid sociopath in the first scene, nothing she does can surprise us.

American Cousins (15) asks us to buy into two decidedly dodgy proposals. One is that a Glaswegian fish-and-chip shop can be a temple of romance and noble tradition. The other is that nothing could be more helpful or reassuring than having a trusty pair of Mafia gunmen under your roof. In the cold light of day, I'd query both proposals. But when I was immersed in the warmth of Sergio Casci's script and Donald Coutts's direction, I was persuaded. Gerald Lepkowski plays Roberto, an Italian Scot who runs a chippy with his grandad and a friend (the very busy Shirley Henderson). Roberto is meek and mild-mannered, especially where the local loan sharks are concerned, but life is trundling along well enough until two distant relations from New Jersey drop in to stay. Little does he know that they're mobsters on the run.

Casci and Coutts have made a film Bill Forsyth might be proud of: American Cousins would fit snugly in between Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. As such, it can seem old-fashioned and unfashionable, but it's a very funny, loveable charmer with a heart as soft and sweet as a Tunnock's Tea Cake.

Jason Schwartzman stars in Spun (18) as a methamphetamine addict who drives around a broken-down Los Angeles suburb, running errands for his dealer (Mickey Rourke, putting his ruined face and boxer's musculature to good use) and his dealer's giggly girlfriend, Brittany Murphy. Jonas Äkerlund, who made the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" video, gives us a headspinning insight into Schwartzman's wired, tired mental state. Bombarding us with fast-forwards, split screens, cartoon inserts, and queasy camera angles, he hurtles us through a festering swamp of shootings, prostitutes, bad skin and constipation, and grimy motel rooms that couldn't look more horrible if Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had been in. You certainly can't accuse Äkerlund of glamorising drug use. Spun is degrading and debauched - and hilarious. It's Trainspotting on even more drugs than it was on already.

In Shoreditch (15), EastEnders' Shane Ritchie plays a jazz club owner who is seduced by Joely Richardson's chanteuse in 1939, and Adam Ross (Jonathan's little brother) plays his grandson, who inherits the club and its mysteries 60 years later. A brave crack at filming an intricate story on a micro-budget, Shoreditch can't rise above its tatty acting and script.

Part Two (PG) of Lucas Belvaux's Trilogy is a disappointment. Maybe next week's conclusion to Belvaux's tri-genre experiment will justify Two's existence, but as an individual film it's a tiresome bourgeois farce. The Cuckoo (12A) is a scenic, sentimental tale of a Russian officer and a Finnish sniper recuperating in the cottage of a Lapp peasant woman in the last days of the Second World War. And London's German Film Festival features Gun-Shy (nc), a twisted romance that starts with deadpan surrealism and ends with gloomy pretension.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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