starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise
screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth
directed by Robert Benton
by Walter Chaw A gravid piece of Oscar-baiting garbage, Robert Benton's dead-on-arrival The Human Stain plods along with the dedication of the dangerously bloated and the pathologically self-important. It's so woefully miscast that its awards-season intentions become transparent, honouring pedigree to mortify the material, and no matter how eternally topical issues of race in the United States might be, the whole production feels airless and badly dated--something like an Arthur Miller parable, lead balloons and rhetorical minefields and all. In fact, the picture is just on this side of camp classic as venerable whore Anthony Hopkins cuts a rug with Gary Sinise to a few Irving Berlin classics and game Nicole Kidman, going the Frankie and Johnny route with an entirely unsuccessful blue-collar turn indicated by a fake tattoo and cigarette, is outmatched by a Nicholas Meyer screenplay packed with head-slappers and incongruities. The sort of movie I tend to dismiss offhand, The Human Stain proves trickier to exorcise for its populist attack on the populist phenomena of political correctness. That doesn't mean the picture's interesting, it means that the picture's thumbing of a hot-button topic buys it a little analysis.
Coleman Silk (Hopkins) is a dean for a small liberal arts college relieved of his duties when he innocently uses the term "spook" to refer to two black students. His wife promptly dying of a heart attack in one of the worst-composed scenes in movie history, Coleman befriends a reclusive young author (Sinise) and beds a custodian/postal worker, Faunia (Kidman), with a checkered past and a psychotic ex-husband (Ed Harris, not as bad here as in The Hours--but who is?). Flashbacks (maybe, I guess--the film is confused and so am I) show a young Coleman (Wentworth Miller) wooing a kind Minnesotan (Jacinda Barrett) under the guise of being Jewish. A dinner with momma Silk (Anna Deavere Smith) leads, unfortunately, to a few more scenes with momma Silk, and for as bad as it all is, it's at least better than the Hopkins/Kidman/Sinise portion of the proceedings.
The picture is a jigsaw of unmotivated (and unconvincing) actor's moments, finding both Hopkins and Kidman affecting a smoky, breathy quality to their speech that's conspiratorial in the way of first-year drama students practicing their stage whisper. Silk's scenes are largely inexplicable, banking on the squat fever-energy of the elderly Hopkins as he jogs, dances, fucks, and climbs various soapboxes to proselytize at windy length about June/next-February relationships. Kidman is better in a smaller role (much of which is spent very discreetly naked), dragging her kids' ashes out from under the bed and weeping piteously to the unkind universe; a conversation with a crow proves to be an epiphany, and a mid-morning treat is announced with at least sixty-six percent too much flab: "I got you something. They're donuts. I got them from the donut shop." Now that's entertainment.
The thought that Silk could have avoided his dismissal had he only confessed his African heritage is bunk of the worst kind--playing on the assumption that a lifetime of black self-hate is not the equal of the specious idea that black folks can't be racist against black folks. More, Silk's eleventh-hour "confession" to his trailer park Dulcinea finds Benton ennobling a, gasp, confession of colour. There's nothing tragic to Silk's life beyond the sharing of it here, and The Human Stain, laden with voice-overs and a preposterous framing story that invalidates whole stretches of the film, finds its most malicious moment of levity in the slow-dawning revelation that all of Coleman's women like their coffee black. The picture is treacle--a grim, clumsy tract that mistakes Silk beating a much darker African-American boxer to near-death in the ring as subtle exploration of his interiors; how much more interesting would the film have been had Silk actually been a racist instead of a senile traditionalist who doesn't know what he's saying? Its sociology as stale as Hopkins's wearying song and dance, The Human Stain is unsalvageable and gaffed, the sort of boutique "important" picture that's taking second fiddle, anyway, to Miramax's priority fall release Cold Mountain. Originally published: October 31, 2003.