In the interest of civilization…conform!
What would it be like to live inside the body of another person, if only for a short period of time? What would their day be like? Their perceptions and desires? This was the intriguing premise behind one of the most original and daring films of 1999, the quirky, inventive Being John Malkovich. Aside from bending traditional narrative style back onto itself, the film announced the arrival of two new, intriguing voices to the world of cinema: director Spike Jonze and writer Charles Kaufman. While it's taken three years for the duo to collaborate on a new film (the highly anticipated Adaptation), Kaufman has worked solo on a few projects. He wrote the script for George Clooney's directorial debut, the odd pseudo-autobiography of Gong Show host Chuck Barris entitled Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And in 2001, a film of his first script was released. It was met with critical and commercial disappointment. While there is probably a future screenplay rummaging around in Kaufman's slightly crooked brain regarding his critical acclaim vs. a film's commercial failure, New Line Cinema is releasing the DVD version of Human Nature. This civilization vs. naturalism fable, while containing many of the things that made Malkovich so impressive, as a whole, fails to generate the same spirit of cockeyed wonder.
Facts of the Case
Lila Jute is a famous author and naturalist. She suffers from a rare hormonal condition that leaves her covered from head to toe in excess and unwanted body hair. Finding the real world too intrusive and judgmental, she escapes to the serene beauty and freedom of nature. There she lives off the land and writes her thoughts in a journal/diary. But another urge, more sexual than survivalist, forces her to return to society. She starts to visit an electrolysist named Louise, who sets her up with a patient of her psychologist brother.
Dr. Nathan Bronfman is that patient, a man haunted by a childhood filled with a strict adherence to etiquette. As a result, he has made it his life's work to teach table manners to mice in order to prove that if the animal world can be civilized, then all of humanity can be tamed. He and Lila fall in love and move in together. One day, while hiking in the woods, they come across a feral man who appears completely untamed. They bring him back to Nathan's lab with the idea of teaching the wild thing about culture and decorum. Dr. Bronfman's nurse, Gabrielle, names him "Puff."
Turns out that Puff was raised in the forest by his father, an unstable man who believed himself an ape. Puff too thinks he is a pygmy gorilla, and initially, does not respond to treatment. But intensive brainwashing and electronic behavior modification turn the manimal into a human being…except for one thing. Puff still has the sex drive and instincts of a beast. It's not long before he's humping legs and mounting waitresses in public. Dr. Bronfman starts an affair with Gabrielle, and once he finds out that Lila is as hairy as Bigfoot, he rejects her.
Lila decides to fight back. She has massive electrolysis treatments and gathers a small gang to "rescue" Puff. She plans on returning him to the wild. Dr. Bronfman and Gabrielle do not want this to happen, since his amazing transformation from beast to big shot has made them all famous and wealthy. Lila is successful, however and soon she and Puff are living the undomesticated and liberated life in nature. But as with all tests of human nature, it's not long before paradise is violated by the lust and sin of man. And Dr. Bronfman has a gun help matters along.
Most movies don't have very much to say. Their theology is tempered in terms of the lowest common denominator and they hardly ever push the envelope unless it's closer to the deposit window at the bank. For many, film isn't about message, it's about entertainment, about losing oneself in other worlds and lives. And when a movie does add some mantra to its mise-en-scène (Fight Club, Natural Born Killers), you usually divide the audience down the middle, between the passionate converted and the "couldn't care less." Charles Kaufman has carved an interesting niche for himself in modern screenwriting. He meshes the grotesque with the strange, interweaves the mundane and normal, and then skews the whole mixture a scoosh to the left of center. The results can be remarkable. Being John Malkovich, his critically acclaimed collaboration with distinct director Spike Jonze, announced a new, important and inventive voice in film language. Kaufman played with form, function, and the finer points of your average screenplay, devising a special entertainment that intrigued as it entertained. Its otherworldly constructs dusted with pain and love resonated with moviegoers tired of seeing stories brave the course instead of heading out into uncharted, non-realistic waters. As a result, he became a hot commodity. As a result, his writer backlog was raided.
Human Nature, one of his first scripts, has a premise that fits nicely into the Kaufman mindset. It questions fundamental aspects of life as it moves its characters through bizarre situations. It also hampers them with unusual physical maladies, which clash with their overt personality traits. There are hardly any normal people in a Kaufman film, and that's fine. He understands that the world is not populated with regular types. There is more drama and charm in the damaged, the freakish or the dumpy than there is in the slick or super modeled. Kaufman wants to challenge as well as champion. He asks hard questions that make people uncomfortable, or at the very least reflective of themselves and their place in life. In Human Nature, he wants to know what makes people civilized? Why is the natural state the freest? Or is it? Why should we curb instinctual needs and desires for the sake of cultured society? And what is culture? Can nature have its own sense of decorum and ethos? And how closely related is man to the animal world, and visa versa? To paraphrase an old cigarette ad, Kaufman wants to explore the ideal that, while you can remove the human being from the bestial, you can't remove the beast from mankind. It is part of us, and all attempts to defy it are pointless and absurd.
But instead of feeding the imagination, challenging the intellect or stretching the satirical limits of comedy, Human Nature is surprisingly lifeless. It's never "ha-ha" funny. It's more like "hmmm" clever. There is never a time when the humor takes off into the stratosphere and there is never a moment when ideology and methodology merge to create a moment of true awe inspiration. After watching the film, you sort of get the point, but you're also left wondering why anyone bothered to try and make it. Lost among the weird makeup effects and uneasy tone shifts are important, imperative objectives Kaufman wants to discuss and dissect. In between all the lame masturbation and sex jokes are occasionally found the philosophical underpinnings. Filled with misguided performances, unsure direction and a less than perfect screenplay, Human Nature could have been more than what it is. Instead, it limps along on its over-intellectualized merits until nothing seems witty or winsome anymore. This is not to say that everything about the film is bad. Kaufman has created some surface intrigue and insight. Perhaps it's that the potential here was so great, that when it stumbles and tumbles, the fall is long, hard, and tedious.
It may be the actors. Kaufman's scripts require a delicate balance between tongue in cheek self-deprecation and straight-ahead performance. But instead of the steady and stoic John Cusack, the hidden beauty of Cameron Diaz or Catherine Keener, or the all-important egotistic hamminess of John M himself, we get mere shadows. Tim Robbins as the tic-filled schlep scientist, Patricia Arquette as the hairy nature girl, and Englishman Rhys Ifans as our apeman have, in other work, been true and excellent. But in Human Nature, they seem awkward, as if thrown off their usual game. Robbins is by far the worst. He plays all his scenes as if he is still searching for his character's motivation (and looks up, down, and around the sets like he'll locate it along the walls or floor somewhere) and is unsure of how to deliver his lines. He is supposed to be the civilized glue in this tale of man vs. nature, but his behavior is so aberrant that anything interesting he can offer (like the scenes of teaching mice table manners) fails to engage. Arquette at least is willing to drop her clothing and play the genetically hairy heroine with a mixture of naïveté and naughtiness that works, that is, when she is given something more to do than run around in her fuzzy birthday suit. Her malady is intriguing, but nothing special is done with it (more on this later). About the only time her character comes alive is when she's discussing self-image with her electrolysis, played by Rosie Perez.
Ifans is another matter altogether. His performance is probably the most bothersome, since it's also the most convoluted and chaotic. One minute he's a feces-flinging throwback, the next he's a semi-suave bon vivant. The transition between the two may be partly the director's fault, but there is no subtlety in what he does it; seems like a jump cut from one to the other. Or it may be that you never once buy him as an ape. He looks like a famous actor playing an ape. But even with his newfound cultured personality, we are left with a lot of issues we cannot resolve. Why does his conversion from feral to finished also make him super-intelligent? If you can brainwash a love of opera into him, why can't you also remove the urge to drink, glut, and hump every woman he sees? Some of these things are hinted at, but not fully explored. And why compel him to speak in an American accent? Sure, he is British, but why force him to cover up the one thing that makes the English so recognizably civilized? A lot of humor could have been derived from questioning how an American apeman schooled by an American and French team of researchers created a cockney or Cambridge caveman. But instead, we are left with his stilted, always on-guard accent, which further disturbs and discredits the performance.
Much of these problems are the fault of director Michel Gondry. Proving the adage that not every video director can make a cohesive film within a visual feast, Gondry seems lost in his own ambitions and those of the screenplay. He just cannot find a consistent tone. Scenes where Arquette's character breaks into a Disney-like song-story play as awkwardly as each time Robbins appears in the afterlife (seated in a totally white recreation of his childhood home, Dr. Bronfman looks even more lost than in his "reality" scenes). You can tell Gondry is a video director. He applies a real visual flair and perspective to fantasy. The scenes of pastoral nature and home movie style past life are kinetic and hyper real. And he does know how to cut a montage to music. But for a film that wants to intellectualize culture and conformity, to understand and expand on our natural instinctual needs, there has to be a concrete directorial vision. Gondry never finds the elegant, somber shadings that made Jonze's Malkovich such a ripe, rich treat. Given a green and greedy canvas to work from, the best he can do is take pot shots at the French and tutoring. It may be unfair to constantly compare the two, but Kaufman is such a singular voice that it's almost impossible not to match both films and directors against each other. Why one works and the other doesn't could be an interesting exercise in film analysis. But it does not make for entertaining viewing.
Probably the reason Human Nature fails is because it sets up many intriguing and deranged situations, but fails to offer pay off to any of them. Robbins is constantly referred to as having a penis the size of a button. But there is no reason for this to be mentioned other than for cheap, sophomoric laughs. There is never a scene where it is discussed at length [Editor's Note: I'm going to presume, for Judge Gibron's sake, that that pun was unintended], nor are there times when his lack of endowment renders him sexually impotent. Everyone he beds seems satisfied, and they never question his immature package. Similarly, Arquettes genetic fur coat is an interesting visual and conceptual analogy (society's vs. nature's view of beauty), but not enough is done with this. Where are the moustache jokes or depilatory quips? We see Arquette shaving herself in a troubling montage, but there is no epiphany, no ultimate moment when the meaning clicks off in the audience's mind. The movie is all preparations, foundations for outrageous, insightful satire. But it never explodes. Even the CGI mice that learn the proper use of a salad fork feel tacked on, as if only to add technical idiosyncrasies or just plain "cuteness" to the film. Charles Kaufman will be known for his distinct, demented narrative style and the unusual approaches he takes with issues of substance. But no matter its lofty goals, Human Nature will always seem like the work of an underdeveloped, not yet fully mature writer.
New Line is no help with their DVD treatment of Human Nature. They dismiss it as readily as the public and critics did. This is a company known for going out of its way to take marginal titles (like Jason X or The Mack) and creating superb standard and special edition packages. So why is Human Nature the most barebones of any DVD reviewed by this critic? Aside from some trailers, we get nothing else. The fancy, animated menu that cleverly utilize the "speak and say" pop art blocks from the movie announce a quirky, inventive digital title. But it's all for nothing. There are no commentaries or interviews, behind the scenes featurettes or made-for-the-media puff pieces. All we have is the film (in either wide or full screen) and a couple of Dolby Digital tracks. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is soft at times, but still avoids compression and pixelation issues one would expect from a dual layer, multiple aspect ratio disc. Colors are well defined and since there is a definite pastel scheme to the set design, there is no flaring or bleeding problems. As for the sound, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is pretty good. We get a nice spatial environment in the laboratory and nature scenes, but with much of the film taking place in fixed settings with characters speaking directly or just off camera, it is not the most immersive of presentations. Maybe New Line assumed the film had limited appeal, and a stripped back title would be the best way to see Human Nature. But some context would have helped.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even with its flaws, Human Nature is still very entertaining. One of the reasons movies are such an effective amusement is that they allow us to see into lives and vistas we normally would not be privy to. Very few people get to spend their lives communing among nature, studying the etiquette of rodents or playing in their own filth, and yet these are the interesting locales and outlandish existences we get to experience in the film. Kaufman is a very ingenious and cunning writer and it's fun to see him skewer the targets he aims for with acerbic wit and intelligence. True, when compared to Being John Malkovich, Human Nature is a less than perfect film. But isn't cut-rate Kaufman better than 99% of the junk that passes for screenwriting in modern Hollywood? In a day and age where inbred gophers with their razor sharp digging claws dipped in India ink could scrawl a more competent narrative than what the Powerbook bankruptcy of "script doctors" create, his risk taking and convention breaking are refreshing and needed. Yes, Human Nature just can't compare and it shouldn't have to. It's an insightful, if inconsistent film.
You want to like Human Nature. You want to champion its warped vision and almost profound message. But it just doesn't work. What little it manages to achieve is wiped away in mediocre performances and amateurish direction. And some of the blame rests squarely on the skullcap of Charles Kaufman. He is a writer reaching for the stars, to expose the world around him in a strange and grandiose fashion, yet his arms are just too short to box with the gods. At least they were. Since Human Nature was conceived, Kaufman has shown he can touch the moon and perhaps, reach even higher. Also, since he first took finger to keyboard, society in general has degenerated to such an extreme that the miscreant monkeyshines of Puff seem tame when compared to people purposefully polluting themselves for the sake of a camera and a few dollars/minutes of notoriety. Charles Kaufman has something very important, very insightful to say about the state of the world's protocol and behavior in these modern, scientific times. Unfortunately, this film is not the proper messenger. When the most memorable thing you take from its ideals about the condition of man is how cute mice look eating salad with forks, something is amiss. And that's the best word to describe Human Nature
Human Nature is found guilty of being a misdirected miscalculation. It is sentenced to ten years in the lost oeuvre of its talented creator Charles Kaufman, to be avoided by fans and forgotten by potential employers. New Line is found guilty of gross mishandling of a DVD title, and sentenced to ten years in DVD Presentation Prison, sentence suspended, as the Court is swayed by evidence that this is not standard treatment for a New Line title.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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