½*/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Patricia Arquette, Rhys Ifans, Tim Robbins, Ken Magee
screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
directed by Michel Gondry
by Walter Chaw From the second screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, the ink-stained wretch behind Spike Jonze's quirk classic Being John Malkovich, French music-video director Michel Gondry's sadly misguided nature/nurture sex romp Human Nature scores once or twice but ultimately thuds like a brick zeppelin. It's a film that thinks it a good idea for Rhys Ifans to appear either full monty or in a diaper for the majority of his performance, likewise that Patricia Arquette have a pelt of hair covering every curve of her Romanesque physique. (Though the latter is played for some surreal yuks as Ms. Arquette writhes on a miniature Empire State Building while a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) walks around in a biplane harness.) Human Nature, in short, isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is; neither is it as smart.
Lila Jute (Arquette) is very hairy--enough so that she leaves civilization to live Thoreau's life in the woods, recording her experiences in the form of best-selling nature journals. Finding herself unbearably randy at the age of thirty, Lila returns to mankind, parlaying her publishing profits into expensive full-body electrolysis performed by a technician (Rosie Perez) who sets her up with anal-retentive research scientist Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins). Nathan suffers from a small penis and an obsession with table manners.
Already tediously convoluted, Human Nature introduces Puff (Ifans), a man raised in the wild by an ape-man. Incapacitated when he falls out of a tree whilst masturbating to the sight of Lila, Puff is taken in by Nathan and his faux-French lab assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto, "Eowyn" in the next two Lord of the Rings instalments) so that they might teach him to appreciate opera, unravel fork etiquette, and hold him up as a symbol of what we left in Eden.
Human Nature just doesn't work. It's an unfunny anthropological variety show that takes some interesting ideas (mostly from Don Symons's seminal text The Evolution of Human Sexuality) and misunderstands them, lacking the strength of its convictions necessary to push the leering slapstick into satire. The film relies far too heavily on sophomoric audience indictments, double flashbacks (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place are fantastic as young Nathan's terrifying parents), and three stale narrative testimonial forms (the police station confession, the testimony before Congress, the dead man in Heaven) that are each wildly distracting and atonal.
Human Nature has no idea how to guide its unwieldy plot between the Scylla and Charybdis of self-love and incoherence. The great irony seems to be that for all the picture's dedication to strangeness, it's a product of overworked premises and exhausted screenplay crutches. More than a disappointment from a promising screenwriter and an extremely talented cast, Human Nature is a jaw-dropper that fancies itself wise to the crimes of man against inner man, never knowing (or successfully disguising) that it's juvenilia masquerading as the gospel.
by Bill Chambers Human Nature arrives on disc from New Line Home Video just in time for yuletide festivities! Sound and image are both spectacular--New Line continues their reign as the leading DVD producer in 2002, as even their stripped-down titles (including catalogue reissues) are a technical cut above those of the other studios. Human Nature is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen versions on the same side of a dual-layer disc; compositionally, it's a toss-up between the two transfers, since the latter opens up the bottom of the frame whilst cropping the vertical sides. Colour, contrast, and detail are all divine. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track gets furious during a scene depicting rough weather (chapter six, "The Life of a Nature Writer"), but for the most part, this is an unremarkable mix: reliable in its professionalism, short on pyrotechnics. Trailers for Human Nature, Storytelling, Cherish, and The Invisible Circus round out the disc. In closing, stick with Adaptation. if you're looking for a dose of Charlie Kaufman this holiday season. Originally published: December 18, 2002.