Human Nature review by Tom Blain
What separates us from the apes?, a young Nathan Bronfman asks his father. Civilization, his father quickly replies. The following line seems to be the crux of the movie Human Nature, an awkward, uneasy film that seemed to have plenty of potential. In that moment, it would appear Nathans animal hating father was insinuating that we humans are the civilized ones, but Kaufmans quirky narrative would lead you to believe otherwise.
Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins, as dry as he could possibly be) is a scientist obsessed with manners. Manners were beaten into him as a kid by his never emotional parents, so he continues to beat them into lab rats thinking it will make the world a better place. Thats right; rats with table manners. Bronfman himself is the victim of several complexes; the most frequently discussed, his small penis.
Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) has been dealing with a hair problem since puberty. She has enough hair to become a circus sideshow and in fact was for sometime. She took to living in the forest, for sometime before she grew to an age where she desired male companionship. Enter the beautician.
The two get hooked up by beautician Rosie Can you believe I still act Perez, who zaps hair off of the furry Arquette. The romance is not your run-of-the-mill paring, but more or less a grab bag couple, each selected from the reject pile. Bronfman has no particular personality (and on top of that can be fairly cruel at times) and Jute has a hair problem coupled with ape-like tendencies to crawl back to nature and reject the world. The love starts off sweet as each accepts each other for their weaknesses. But with Bronfmans black-and-white scientific view of the world, he cant look past Jutes physical ugliness. He lies to her, has an affair, and drives her to hate herself and proves that with all our table manners, we humans are not as civilized as we would like to think.
But was figuring out this point worth the trip to get there? Many moments leave the audience feeling uncomfortable. This isnt always a bad thing, but in Human Nature it is. Particularly most of the moments where Jute is either very hairy, or shaving herself. And crying. I guess I kinda got hung up on this whole she has a lot of hair thing. I wish I could have shifted my attention elsewhere and found something to take away from the film but there wasnt much else in the movie for me to be attracted to. The story took quite a while to get off the ground, and when it did there wasnt exactly much else to see.
As to be expected in a Kaufman film, most the characters are subjects of their own neuroses and some are just downright odd. Besides Bronfman and Jute having their serious problems, Bronfmans parents (Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster) are heavy on table manners and their dislike of uncivilized animals to the point where they become goofy caricatures of these only two thoughts. Imagine if you cranked up the volume on the Leave it to Beaver parents. Yeah youd probably be a pretty messed up kid too. The only character worth attaching to was Puff (Rhys Ifans), who was a ape-man being taught by Bronfman. He is the narrator of several flashbacks, and in the present seems to be quite the intellectual (considering his primitive past).
Director Michael Gondry seemed to treat this movie like a cheap but artsy music video. I came away thinking some of my grade school dioramas showed more authenticity than Human Natures outdoor sets. Even some of the indoor sets seemed to be bent on colorful extremes as opposed to subtle hints (for example, Gabrielles bedroom was sexed up beyond belief). Not to take the blame for this stinker off of Kaufmans shoulders but direction did not help this movie at all. To Gondrys credit, he really nailed his 2nd Kaufman project, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the greater movies in 2004. In that movie, his direction felt closer to what Spike Jonez had done with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. He redeemed himself almost enough to be forgiven for this letdown.
All in all, my only advice to you, the reader, the film-goer, and the Charlie Kaufman fan is to avoid this one, or at least watch it on an empty stomach. Its quirky but not in the Malkovich good way. Its more like Breakfast of Champions which was a horribly Twilight Zoneish adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Theres a reason few people heard about this movie before it was released. To the Kaufman-haters out there, this is just more fuel for your never-ending fire. You may have won this time, but the battle is far from over.
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