Human Nature (2002)

Kevin Devine

Human Nature is largely a study of the fine line between being innovative and being asinine.

Human Nature

Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Rosie Perez
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Good Machine
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-04-12

Human Nature screenwriter Charlie Kaufman also wrote the celebrated Being John Malkovich. So he's, like, way metaphysical as a humorist and modern commentator on morality, with an approach so far out of left field he's actually coming at us from those rooftops across the street behind the ivy wall at Wrigley. That Malkovich's disjointed David Lynch-meets-Frank Zappa-meets-Jim Henson-on-crystal-meth headfuck succeeded at the box office and scored Academy points is one of the more mind-blowing -- pun unintended -- happenings in mainstream American cinema's recent history. That Kaufman had the film world buzzing "what next" loud enough to drown out all the cell phones in Hollywood is not.

Kaufman's success in Malkovich is noteworthy and positive. How many other screenwriters -- not writing/directing auteurs, and not glory-hogging, "a film by" directors -- arguably the most overlooked flower in the creative garden get top line attention like that? Granted, with Malkovich it helped immeasurably to have Spike "Dude, I could be drinking Zima on a shuffleboard deck with Richard Grieco and still be WAY cooler than you" Jonze calling "action" and "cut." Yet Kaufman matched Jonze neck and neck up Accolade Hill. To the extent that in the two weeks since Human Nature debuted, his deeply flawed and vastly inferior follow-up, nearly everything there's been to read about it has started the same way: "Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich."

So, fairly or unfairly, Human Nature will be judged as Kaufman's movie more than anyone else's. And, as he's written an overly ambitious, thematically stunted winkathon that fails biggest and baddest on the shortcomings of its script, this judge is scoring harshly. Human Nature is largely a study in the fine line between being innovative and being asinine. And without Cool Hand Spike's bravura parlor tricks to keep the hallucination within its frame, Kaufman's wheels go round and round but don't take him real far.

I'm not sure how they could, seeing as his focus is so broad as to not exist (I don't envy director Michel Gondry, who comes to this having worked on some Bjork videos and commercials and seems swallowed whole by the material). At any given time, Human Nature is a highly stylized through-the-looking-glass parable on: our empty obsession with physical appearance; crass urbanization and Western culture's Thoreau-esque overemphasis on refinement vs. life; how (in)effective our parameters for defining civilization are; our dangerous fascination with being someone else -- also the backbone of Malkovich; the psychological thumbprint parents make on their defenseless children -- in fact, the ultimate validity of psychology as a practice at all; and, in a muddy statement that's questionably sexist-in-a-Bob Dylan-sorta-way, how love and lust and power can turn anyone duplicitous and capable of great evil, especially women.

Kaufman might have turned a thoughtful and thorough treatment of any one of those topics into a compelling script. Instead he juggles himself stupid and winds up empty-handed, spinning characters out of control with inexplicable actions and foreclosing plot lines into stonewalls and split ends. What starts as zany ends up pat and silly.

But initially, as far as Pomo crackpot morality indictments go, this one isn't without promise. Kaufman sets his story up as a flashback told from three perspectives: Lila's (Patricia Arquette), Puff's (Rhys Ifans), and Nathan's (Tim Robbins). Lila is a typical American girl with a grossly accelerated hormone issue that causes her to grow Kong-like body hair. This is sort of a problem when it comes to meeting men, or really meeting anybody. Disgusted with herself and tired of the vicious joke that her genetic composition has played on her, Lila contemplates suicide, because anything's better than a "life" built around playing an ape-woman in a circus freak show.

With blade already to wrist in a warm bath, Lila is dissuaded from killing herself by a fluffy little mouse that stares her down and sends her some much needed universal, animalistic acceptance, body hair and all. Reinvigorated, Lila makes her move. She decides that human understanding and companionship pale in comparison to the same as made available by our less judgmental brethren in the jungle. Just so, she lets her freak flag fly, grows her hair all over everywhere, moves into the woods, and lives in a tent off money she makes as a best-selling nature writer/female empowerment specialist (women in beauty parlors devour her books like chocolate-covered editions of Cosmo and her second book is titled Fuck Humanity).

But then, nearing thirty and living alone in the woods, she gets horny. This combination of animal instinct and human frailty propels her back to Starbucks society and into hair-removal treatment, administered by a plucky electrolysist (Rosie Perez -- and where the f has she been?) looking to play matchmaker for Nathan (Tim Robbins), a scientist friend with a crippling case of phallic insecurity. Nathan's a bit of a loner, albeit an extremely well-manicured one: his life work is teaching mice table manners, and shocking them crisp if they don't use the right microfork to eat their microsalads.

He's a fairly fucked up guy, so initially, the two get on just fine. On a date in the woods, the couple encounters the feral beastman Nathan will later name "Puff" (Rhys Ifans) and turn into his pet project -- pun totally intended, the gnarly dog -- and Frankenstein monster. And then, as if on cue, we encounter wacky hijinks. Things fall apart spectacularly: a va-va-voom French lab assistant (Miranda Otto) accelerates the process by fleshing out a romantic rectangle with the other three, feelings and relationships get heavily damaged, and someone winds up catching a bullet to the head. Unfortunately, the movie's failure parallels the failures in the lives of its principal characters. By the final scene nearly every character involved in the big spiral has made some totally radical decision that doesn't at all fit or make sense with regard to what's come before.

The performances aren't the problem, however, and shouldn't be confused with the writing: Arquette is uncharacteristically lively as Lila, fluidly transitioning from wounded recluse to naïve, insecure relationship rookie and on to ass-kicking woman-scorned with chops that I, for one, never knew she had. Robbins is singularly hysterical, painfully anal and disarmingly haunting, often in the same shot, cementing his reputation as one of film's quirkiest and most cerebral leading men. And Ifans steals the movie every time he's on screen, acting as Human Nature's id and displaying a profound talent for physical comedy while effortlessly shifting gears from grunting Tarzan to erudite upper-cruster. His transformation is so total that the blazer and ascot-bedecked Puff standing in front of projected footage of the primal creature first captured by Nathan offers a truly jarring contrast.

Puff is also the film's best developed sociological critique: drawn without his control into civilization, he sacrifices the blissful ignorance of an unexamined, un-intellectualized life, and winds up looking to alcohol, hookers, and drugs to fill up the gaping hole in his internal fabric torn by his newly opened eyes. The logic here is that maybe we wouldn't be so screwed up if we weren't so plugged in. It's an argument that gets your attention.

But, like so much of Human Nature, Kaufman's screenplay doesn't really know what to do with that attention once it's won. Maybe he doesn't care. Maybe the point is to throw out as many undergraduate level philosophy essay questions as he can, hoping something sticks along the way, but knowing full well he can hide behind postmodernism and look deep-in-thought when complaints over the disconnects come rolling back. Either way, Human Nature lacks the courage to ultimately look itself in the eye. If this is what's left in the coolsville out beyond left field, I'm not so curious to see what comes next. Sometimes, even the most metaphysical of ponies only knows one good trick.

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