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Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Talk like you, be like you

Human Nature

Rating: * * *
Director: Michael Gondry
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Director Michel Gondry, a music-video director who's worked with everyone from Daft Punk to Sheryl Crow, makes his cinematic debut with "Human Nature," a silly indie comedy with a cast to die for. But the real attention-getter of this film is the screenplay penned by Charlie Kaufman, the mad genius behind "Being John Malkovich." Another encouraging sign is that "Malkovich's" director Spike Jones is on board as a producer; he signed on after meeting Gondry at a Cibo Matto concert. (Great minds groove alike.)

News photo
Rhys Ifans in "Human Nature"

The film starts with Patricia Arquette in jail, Tim Robbins in heaven and Rhys Ifans testifying before a congressional committee. What follows is a bizarre tale of how these three damaged personalities intersected with fatal results. Lila Jute (Arquette) is a back-to-nature environmental extremist who has written screeds with titles such as "F*** Humanity." Her misanthropy, however, stems from a socially crippling medical condition: Lila's entire body is covered in hair. As such, she comes to prefer bestial company to that of her own species.

Off in another forest is her potential soul-mate, Puff (Ifans). Unlike Lila, he doesn't look like an ape, but he was raised since childhood by primates, and thus acts like one. Before Lila encounters Puff, though, she is pulled back toward civilization by the most primal urge of all: sex. Lila endures electrolysis and cosmetics in an attempt to land a boyfriend, namely Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Robbins), a behavioral researcher obsessed with teaching table manners to lab mice.

Nathan represents everything Lila hates, zapping his mice with electric shocks in order to curb their natural, "savage" instincts and replace them with "civilized" behavior -- like knowing which fork is the salad fork on their tiny mousey dinner table (a hilarious scene, and a nice send-up of scientific hubris).

Lust triumphs over all, though, and soon Nathan and Lila are a couple. When hiking in the woods one day, they stumble across Puff. Nathan decides to take him back to his lab and civilize him -- a rather subjective process that ends up with Puff acting like a robotic toff from a Merchant/Ivory flick. Lila goes along, against her better instincts, but rebels when she finds out that Nathan's having an affair with his sexpot French lab assistant, Gabrielle (the always wonderful Miranda Otto).

While the film plays up the contrast between "natural" and "civilized" man, it ends up unearthing the missing link between the two. Human nature, as Gondry and Kaufman see it, is nothing more than the urge to fornicate. Both Lila and Nathan betray their own values in order to get some, and poor Puff goes along with the whole program just to get out of his cage and actually jig someone. This turns into the film's running joke, as the "I say, old chap" civilized Puff constantly breaks down and starts humping anything: Lila's leg, a mannequin, even a nudie pic on a screen. Nathan restrains him with electric shocks and a choice bit of advice: "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do."

There are shades of "A Clockwork Orange," but Gondry's film never hits the disquieting depths of black humor that Kubrick's classic attained. Rather, the wit on offer here seems set to prove how much an indie film can resemble a Farrelly brothers flick. Thus, the jokes linger a bit too long on the scatological side: a dog giving cunnilingus; Puff smearing his own feces on the wall; and plenty of masturbation and penis jokes.

Rarely does "Human Nature" come close to the level of inspired Dada nonsense in "Being John Malkovich." Gondry takes a few stabs at pure silliness -- Arquette, nude and hairy, suddenly breaking into twee "Sound of Music"-style song in the middle of the forest -- but it's not sustained enough to carry the viewer along and risks falling flat.

Good comedy lives or dies on momentum, and "Human Nature" never picks up enough speed to take off. Part of this is due to the direction. There's no overall consistency in tone and too many mock-dramatic scenes breaking up the truly funny bits.

The other part of the problem is casting: Arquette is a fine actress, but broad comedy is not her forte -- some of her scenes are just painful to watch. Ifans, meanwhile, gets in the groove nicely, but I had to keep blotting out memories of his indelibly obnoxious performance in "Twin Town."

Still, Robbins is reliably amusing in a creepy, anal sort of way, while Otto gets to go really over the top with her Julie Delpy parody. That's the kind of film it is -- its strengths and flaws almost equally balanced. "Human Nature" is guaranteed to make you smile, but only half as much as it should.

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