In the recent contract squabble between the Writers Guild and the Hollywood studios, much was made of the possessory credit...that all important line next to the title that says "a film by Wes Craven" or "a film by Alan Smithee." Directors get the credit. Writers don't. Even successful writers remain largely anonymous until they direct their own films.
The new film "Human Nature" is being promoted as a Charlie Kaufman film. This breaks the rule, as Kaufman is the writer. It also makes perfect sense because Kaufman's screenwriting debut, "Being John Malkovich," broke enough rules to make him notorious, and the small but nearly starving audience for smartly cynical yet playfully absurdist films has been waiting to see how Kaufman could possibly follow his own high wire act.
The good news is that "Human Nature" proves Kaufman is no fluke, nor has success gone to his still very peculiar head. Again, precious few filmmakers would be so obvious as to pursue a subject like human nature by simply taking its human characters and seeing what they would be like if raised as apes. Specifically, Rhys Ifans plays Puff, a man raised by his deranged, simian-obssessed father. Patricia Arquette plays Lila, who, having been dealt a hormonal condition that causes copious hair growth all over her body, has apeness thrust upon her and must choose between natural instinct and the social norm. The triangle is completed by Tim Robbins as Dr. Nathan Bronfman, an uptight behavorist who labors to teach table manners to laboratory mice until both Puff and Lila fall into his lap. And the triangle is squared by Miranda Otto as Dr. Bronfman's sexy lab assistant, the suspiciously French Gabrielle. The story is told through shifting perspectives, including Puff's testimony before a Congressional Committee and the deceased Dr. Bronfman's observations from a sterile waiting room in the afterlife. And the lesson gleaned from all this surreal prodding of human nature is that we're still slaves to our sexual urges.
The bad news is that "Human Nature" is a film made of moments. Some good moments. Some great moments. Some very large laughs. But the goodwill I was banking for this movie began to dissipate the longer it went without finding its groove. The surprise twist at the end presumes the film was building to an ironic crescendo, but if the notion that we're still slaves to our sexual urges doesn't strike you as particularly fresh or provocative, you won't leave the theater nodding thoughtfully. Or insist to every friend that they need to see this film. If this is indeed a Charlie Kaufman film, he can share the kudos and the blame with French director Michel Gondry, who directs with the urgency of a man on a tight schedule and tighter budget.
"Human Nature" doesn't sustain the giddy ride of "Being John Malkovich," and unfortunately that's enough to label it a disappointment. Yet I can't say I'd trade it for a film that aims for the mundane and hits the bullseye. Let's just say "Human Nature" is as wildly imperfect as its subject matter, and promise to keep an eye out for whatever Charlie Kaufman comes up with next.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 03/02
France/US - 2001