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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Human Nature
reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Del Mar theater in downtown Santa Cruz, Human Nature is another of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's strange stories (he wrote Being John Malkovich), directed by a French video and commercial director, Michel Gondry, in his feature film debut.

The story explores, well, human nature, of course. In the aftermath of a murder, Patricia Arquette, as Lila Jute, tells her story to the police, Rhys Ifans as "Puff," the ape-man turned civilized, testifies before congress, and Tim Robbins, as clinical psychologist Nathan Bronfman, speaks from beyond the grave in an all-white room that could be heaven or hell.  The story unfolds in flashback: Lila, afflicted at puberty with an extraordinary growth of body hair, escapers to the woods to live unperturbed in nature, but, ironically, returns to civilization because of her "natural" urges to have sex. She meets and marries the lonely Dr. Bronfman, who is so obsessed with civilization that he's teaching mice, by means of electroshock, to eat at a miniature dinner table with miniature forks and knives. He tames Lila in a cheeky parody of My Fair Lady. Meanwhile, Puff is a boy abducted by his mad father who thinks he's an ape. Puff grows up naked, wild and illiterate. Lila and Dr. Bronfman  capture him and he becomes the next civilizing project.

But, using a tired old cliché that the movie can't manage to revivify or to satirize successfully, human nature is stubborn and will out: Lila's hair keeps growing, Dr. B finds himself attracted to his lab assistant (hilariously played by Miranda Otto), and Puff spends all his time figuring out how to get laid. Human nature is devious, cruel, sly, and gendered. Men cannot control their heterosexual urges, while it seems women have trouble controlling their need to please men.

What's smart about the movie are its parodies of other nature/culture movies, events, philosophical and psychoanalytic musings: the monkey trials, My Fair Lady, Clockwork Orange, all those wild-boy stories, Freud, etcetera. The two contradictory emblems for the ironies of the human nature dilemma are, on the one hand and appropriately enough, the sparkling white lab mice, glaringly out of place in the wild and more amenable to civilizing influences than the humans themselves.  The other emblem is the couple comprised of Rosie Perez and her boyfriend, seeming misfits (one "racialized," the other physically "challenged"), who turn out to exhibit some of the most civilized values of all.

But, overall, the film has nothing new to say on the subject, and the worn-out platitudes it rehearses are boring as well as pernicious. Are we still thoroughly convinced that heterosexual men are cads, always uncontrollably rutting, incapable of experiencing desire beyond the narrowest bounds of the norm? And for women, the answer to the problem of defective nature-which is what they seem to be-is either deception or the kind of pseudo-liberation that involves extreme bodily discipline and permanent hair removal. And by the way-while the movie has no qualms about displaying imperfect male nakedness, Arquette gets a body double for the wild hairy parts and a perfect hairless body-cliché for her final triumph.

This is the kind of film whose occasional cleverness one can appreciate. Some of the gags are great, and some moments ring strikingly true. But its philosophical take on the question of human nature is puerile at best, misogynist at worst.  Skip it.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002