Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Errant Pass

Philip Rothís prize-winning novel about race becomes a dull, reverential movie.


From my distant perch, I survey the career of Robert Benton and wonder how the guy does what he does. He hasnít had a solid critical or financial hit since 1979 (his zeitgeist-tapping divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer), yet he continues to draw plum Hollywood assignments, get A-list stars to headline his films, and rack up Oscar nominations even though his filmmaking is never distinctive or original in any way. That streak continues in his current movie, The Human Stain, which is based on Philip Rothís Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel.

Rothís book was a prodigious achievement despite its deep flaws, comprising about 70 percent brilliantly sympathetic analyses of a wide range of characters and 30 percent the rantings of a mad old man against the state of the world. The movie eliminates most of the rantings and the analyses and confines itself to the barest plot points. Even so, the gripping story should have carried it. Itís about Coleman Silk, a widely respected classics professor whoís run out of his job for using a word in class that can be interpreted as a racial slur. The irony is in Colemanís long-buried secret, that he himself is a light-skinned African-American who has spent most of his adult life passing as a white man. Like the book, the movie goes back and forth between the past, in which young Coleman (Wentworth Miller) first decides to let the world mistake him for Caucasian, and the present, in which the older man (Anthony Hopkins) finds new life in his semi-forced retirement by embarking on a tragically doomed love affair with a younger woman (Nicole Kidman).

Hopkinsí recent performances have found him either coasting on his Old World charm (Bad Company, Hearts in Atlantis) or redoing Hannibal Lecter to the point of banality. This role challenges him, and especially in the early going he sends off enough sparks to remind us what an invigorating actor he is. As the film goes on, though, itís Kidman who takes over. Some say that sheís implausibly beautiful for the role of a janitorial staff worker, but both the book and the film stipulate that her character is from a privileged background and has fallen a long way. She looks bone-weary, and she delivers most of her lines sounding as if sheís just smoked an entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting.

The movieís as tired as she is, but thatís because of Bentonís inertia and gentility, which swallow up the supporting cast. The only time the director shows any enthusiasm about what heís filming is in the scene early on when Coleman, having just begun his affair and in a buoyant mood, grabs his friend Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) and dances with him to Irving Berlinís music. Benton follows their movements with a graceful tracking shot, and the movie momentarily lifts off the ground. Elsewhere, though, he falls into the same trap as when he adapted E.L. Doctorowís Billy Bathgate in 1991, bringing little imagination to the story and relying on the materialís literary pedigree to do the work for him. The Human Stain is based on a modern classic. Itís a shame that the filmmaker knew that too well.

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