Paul Rudd's Best Role: The Shape Of Things

This week Paul Rudd grows a beard and some hippie hair and harasses his sisters in Our Idiot Brother, the Sundance comedy picked up by the Weinstein Company. It's only the latest in a string of slam-dunk comedic roles from Rudd, who started off as every 15-year-old's dream boyfriend in Clueless, then was rescued from a string of bland rom-com roles when he got picked up by seemingly every funny bunch of comedians making movies, from The State guys and Wet Hot American Summer to Judd Apatow and his ever-expanding empire.

But with so much Rudd goodness to enjoy, how can you possibly choose a favorite? Is there even any way to pit Anchorman's Brian Fantana against I Love You Man's Peter Klaven? It may be a foolish effort, but we here at Cinema Blend are going to try it anyway. Every day this week we'll present you with an argument for a certain role as being Paul Rudd's best. You can vote in the poll at the bottom and let us know your own thoughts, but remember, we're going in chronological order, so just because your favorite hasn't yet come up doesn't mean it won't (If you're holding your breath for How Do You Know, though, I can go ahead and let you down now). Katey kicked things off with an argument for Wet Hot American Summer, now Sean moves over to the dramatic side for The Shape of Things.

Robin Williams did it. Jim Carrey’s done it multiple times. Bill Murray’s been doing it for years. Actors known for their comedic skills often attempt to showcase their emotional sides in dramatic roles. It’s one way for a performer to say to the audience, “There’s more to me than bathroom humor and funny voices.” Or, if you are Adam Sandler in either Spanglish or Reign Over Me, it’s one way to remind your audience that bathroom humor and funny voices might be all that you’ve got.

As Katey pointed out in her excellent Wet Hot American Summer piece, in the early 00s Paul Rudd was perched somewhere between absurdist comedy and bland rom-com lead. Clueless put him on the map, and he slowly stole scenes in films like 200 Cigarettes and Summer. But it was Neil LaBute’s 2003 adaptation of his own play The Shape of Things that made most people sit up and notice that Rudd wasn’t just made up of awkward pauses and affable shrugs delivered in the name of comedy. The dude could act … and even break our hearts.

Rudd plays Adam, a nerdy and shy guy who can’t figure out why Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful and seductive art student, is taking an interest in him. Everyone can see that on the surface, Evelyn is out of Adam’s league, and before long, the unassuming, hesitant protagonist is taking a flamethrower to his past – including Jenny (Gretchen Mol), the pretty, kind blonde who likes Adam for what he is, not what Evelyn’s making him out to be.

I can’t go much further without spoiling LaBute’s dark reveal for those who’ve yet to see either the film or the stage play. But what we see here again is Rudd's ability to play shades of any male character without turning his interior dial too far. He’s completely believable as a cocky camp counselor, a repressed real estate agent in need of a friend (I Love You Man, an arrogant, chauvinistic television reporter (Anchorman), and a put-upon spouse who needs to lie to his wife just to participate in a fantasy baseball league (Knocked Up).

And the beauty of Shape is that it’s the only role on Rudd’s resume that asks him to use all of those traits in service of one role. Adam starts off a meek, graduates with confidence, maintains more than a sliver of his self-doubt, then crumbles in a heap after his ego is shattered. And Rudd sells every step of the journey. With The Shape of Things, LaBute figured out how to use every tool in Rudd’s box. I think it stands out as his best role because no other film has managed to show as many sides of this versatile performer’s game since.

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Sean O'Connell
Managing Editor

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.