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Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Secrets lodged underneath the skin
When David Howard, a white aide to the black mayor of Washington, D.C., spoke of a "niggardly" budget in 1999, he was out of a job faster than you can say "Brer Rabbit." Howard was tarred for supposedly being a racist by people whose eagerness to take offense was only equaled by their reluctance to open a dictionary.
It was one of those defining moments that crystalizes feeling into fact, where the hypersensitivity of political correctness was hoist on its own petard. This much-reported event was echoed in "The Human Stain," in which author Philip Roth took the incident's apparent irony and upped the ante, constructing a nuanced parable on race, class and morality in modern America. Veteran director Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer") brings Roth's tale pretty much intact to the big screen -- though its innate cynicism is somewhat offset by the glamour of a high-profile cast.
Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins may seem like one of cinema's most unlikely screen romances, and as far as May-September affairs go, the 30-year age difference may seem implausible to some, but actually, challenging such assumptions is part of what this film's about.
Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a respected classics professor at a prestigious East Coast college. He's the first Jewish professor in his department, and also the first to hire an African-American, but that doesn't save him from being pilloried for a casual comment. When teaching one day, he asks the class whether a pair of frequently absent students "really exist, or are they just spooks?" It turns our that the missing students are black, and take the remark as racist.
Coleman's not the sort of guy to back down in the face of such foolishness, but he misreads the tenor of the times. Just as with the "reds" of the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s, no one will risk their own neck defending someone branded a racist, wrongfully or not. Coleman quits in a rage -- the likes of which only Hopkins can do justice to -- but the shock proves too much for his wife, who dies suddenly from a stroke.
Deprived of all that he held dear, Coleman becomes a man adrift. He finds solace in a pair of new relationships, one with Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a reclusive author recovering from cancer and a divorce, the other with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a cleaning woman at the college Coleman just left.
The former friendship is fairly healthy: Both Coleman and Zuckerman are survivors, and the bond they form allows them to open up a bit. Zuckerman is the Roth substitute in the tale, a device that allows him to pontificate a bit in the voice-over and to give us some third-party perspective on Coleman. This is, as we find out, quite important because Coleman is a guy who isn't even honest with himself. The nature of the lie he's been living all of his adult life is only slowly uncovered by Zuckerman, and director Benton does a good job of teasing us with hints and suggestions.
Coleman's tryst with Faunia is more problematic. The close-knit college community is aghast at Coleman's affair, though it's not clear whether it's the vast difference in age or social class that bothers them more. Faunia also comes complete with suicidal tendencies and a psychotic ex-husband (Ed Harris), a Vietnam vet who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. What no one seems to get, though, is how Faunia and Coleman do find comfort in each other: They're both blunt, no-BS personalities, and can accept that in each other. They're the kind of couple for whom the pillow talk after Viagra-enhanced sex goes like this: "I was wondering what it's like f**king an old man." "It's perfect. No surprises."
Where this is all heading doesn't become clear until late in the film, and there's no reason to spoil it here. Suffice to say, what "The Human Stain" does best is to show how hurt lingers, how the traumas of our youth shape and control our lives in ways that we barely realize..
That may seem a nebulous idea on which to hang a film, but rest assured, "The Human Stain" delivers in many ways, particularly in the performances; it's certainly fun to watch Kidman -- with her regal, ethereal looks -- mutate into a low-rent temptress, cigarette jammed in puckered lips, sporting a snake tattoo and a scowl. Harris is just as good as her wacko ex, exuding a scary calm that only betrays the fury beneath in his cold, cold eyes. He starts a session with his therapist by saying "Let's get one thing straight, I'd never hurt her," and ends it with "I should have killed her years ago." It's only Sinise, with his strained, Al Gore-like demeanor, who lets the energy drop.
Benton's film is entirely typical of the current wave of art-house "literary" flicks -- "The Hours," et al. -- with suitably beautiful stars in perfectly picaresque settings going through tastefully tragic episodes. Incest, the death of a child, emotional trauma, parental abuse and other "issues" are about as predictable as an exploding fireball in a Vin Diesel flick. There are some who dismiss such films as lacking in reality, particularly when you've got Kidman, looking like she does, scrubbing floors. If you buy the idea, though, that such iconic actors can bring a lot more to a role than what's on the page, then "The Human Stain" won't disappoint.