Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 11, 2002
Surrealists Gone Wild!

Love is a hairy affair in the offbeat and off-base Human Nature.

By Kristian Lin

Upon hearing that Human Nature was written by Charlie Kaufman (who got an Oscar nomination and widespread acclaim for his first produced script, Being John Malkovich), you might assume that it’s something out of the ordinary. Well, you’d be dead on. If you’re also assuming that this movie’s as good as Being John Malkovich, however, you’ll be somewhat off the mark.

How strange is the movie? Check out the plot: Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) is a woman whose copious amounts of body hair have caused her to live as a recluse in the woods and write books about nature to make ends meet. Her loneliness eventually overtakes her, so she shaves off her hair, buys some clothes, and goes out into the world to find a date. Her choice is virginal animal researcher Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a man so civilized that he’s trying to teach lab rats to eat with knives and forks. The hugely mismatched pair are somehow happy until they go walking in the forest one day and meet a man (Rhys Ifans) who was raised as an ape. Envisioning the anthropological experiment of a lifetime, Nathan captures the man, names him “Puff” at the suggestion of his slutty French assistant, keeps him in a giant Lucite cage in his laboratory, and goes about turning Puff into a fully functional, pipe-smoking, Melville-reading, opera-attending gentleman and man-about-town. We get the sense that it won’t go well — as the three main characters retell their stories, one is in prison, one is testifying before Congress, and the other one is dead (and narrating from the afterlife).

It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take this. Most of the time, Kaufman seems to be playing straight with his thesis that civilization is bad and nature is good, but every once in a while he gives the theme a parodic rap. Puff relates how his father went insane after the Kennedy assassination and cries out in anguish, “Apes don’t assassinate their presidents!” Like Spike Jonze, director Michel Gondry is a first-time filmmaker with a background in music videos and tv commercials (he created those disturbing singing navels for Levi’s). When Jonze directed Being John Malkovich, though, he mostly blew off Kaufman’s themes and treated the material as absurdist farce, reveling in the opportunity to translate the script into a nightmare world of miniature offices and endless clones of John Malkovich. Gondry doesn’t have the same rapport with Kaufman’s writing. His surrealism is too chipper; he cutesifies the material whenever possible, especially the blatantly artificial nature scenes and the lab rats.

The actors (particularly Ifans, who draws the most difficult assignment) perform heroically given what’s demanded of them. Whatever you think of Patricia Arquette’s acting, you have to admire her guts. After all, it’s one thing to play a scene naked and covered with fake body hair, but she has to perform a musical number under those circumstances, and that’s another thing entirely, especially since she can’t sing. Unhappily, the idea behind that scene is much funnier than the execution, much like the rest of Human Nature.

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