Human Nature (2002) [Review Re-View]
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”
Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.
Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity. Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.
“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods, Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette, and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.
What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”
Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and, sadly, the humor. Human Nature tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.
Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did as Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on, yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.
Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting into a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.
While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’m at a loss with 2002’s Human Nature. I thought in the ensuing twenty years I would have more to say with coming back to the early burst of brilliant writer Charlie Kaufman in the immediate wake of his successful debut, 1999’s Being John Malkovich. 2002 was a big year for Kaufman; he had three movies released that he wrote, all of them wildly different. His best work was Adaptation, a reteaming with Malkovich’s Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze, that earned Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Kaufman was close to winning for Best Original Screenplay and sharing the honor with his pretend twin brother, the both of whom were portrayed by Nicolas Cage. It was the most challenging and creative and fulfilling of the three. There was also Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the debut for George Clooney as a director, was a lark of a movie, taking Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claimed he was doubling as a CIA black ops hitman. I recently re-watched this one months ago and my opinion even lowered because there’s nothing to the movie beyond the central irony of the unexpected reality of this unexpected man being a spy and assassin. There’s no real insight into Barris as a character and he comes across as scummy and unworthy of a big screen examination. It’s a story that only exists to be ironic and missing the messy humanity and pathos of Kaufman’s best.
But Kaufman’s most forgotten movie in his screenwriting career is definitely Human Nature, the debut film for Michel Gondry, one of Kaufman’s other collaborators along with Jonze, both men having gained great acclaim for eclectic and visionary and just plain weird music videos. It follows three main characters, each debriefing their tale to an audience. Lila (Patricia Arquette) is accused of murder and discussing her lifelong malady of growing intense amounts of body hair, enough so that she worked as a gorilla woman in a circus sideshow. Puff (Rhys Ifans) is a man raised in the wild who intended to be an ape and returned to society, been trained in etiquette, and become an example of the transformative power of civilization. Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) is telling his story after death with a bullet hole in the middle of his pasty forehead, as the scientist who found Puff, trained him, and romanced Lila before cheating on her with his French assistant (Miranda Otto). Immediately, the movie presents questions for us to unpack: how did Nathan die? Who was really responsible? What will be the connections between these three very different characters? Then there are assorted kooky side characters that come in and out, but the focus is mostly on this trio, perhaps a foursome with Otto, and the shame is that there is only one really interesting character among them.
Lila is the only protagonist worth following. She feels like a freak, even served in a “freak show,” and must hide her secret from lovers who would object to her untamed mane. She’s vulnerable and hopeful but pressured to conform to be accepted, and her journey to radical self-acceptance would have been an entertaining movie all on its own. However, by fragmenting the narrative with Puff and Nathan, she gets far less attention and her story becomes, for far too long, just her willfully sublimating herself to Nathan’s standards of beauty. Lila frustratingly feels like a character furiously trying to do whatever she can to keep the affections of a bad man. It’s reductive to the movie’s most interesting character. Puff and Nathan, in contrast, just feel like ideas, opposite poles in a discussion over the differences between animal instinct and the ideals of human civilization in all its hypocritical splendor. Even though both men are given comic-tragic back-stories, neither is really a richly defined character. Puff is all impulses and his urges become a tiresome comic device when we watch him hump somebody or something for the eightieth time. Nathan’s preoccupation with social niceties is meant to be absurd (teaching table manners to mice?) and petty, a meaningless articulation of “high culture and values.” I did laugh out loud when Nathan was teaching Puff how to respond at the opera, complete with a constructed box seat. Nathan is a satirical punching bag for a bourgeois sensibility. Neither him nor Puff feel like characters, instead more like conflicting points of view of humanity.
The other disappointing aspect to Human Nature is as I declared in 2002, it feels like quirky for quirky’s sake screenwriting. Kaufman has become a screenwriting legend and he’s able to marry absurd, bizarre, and dangerous elements into meaningful and subversive and satirical masterstrokes, but the man cannot be expected to perform at the highest heights every time. Human Nature is stuffed full of wacky moments and wacky characters and it doesn’t feel like it ever amounts to more than the sum of its transitory parts. In contrast, 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is an example of how one can take the most bizarre ideas and still find ways to tie them back in meaningful ways that braid into the larger theme. However, much of Human Nature feels like a quirk dartboard being hit over and over, a catalog of strange visuals and goofy ideas (Lila breaks out into song!) that fails to coalesce into a larger thesis like an Adaptation or an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the vastly underrated Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. He’s a master of the idiosyncratic, but Human Nature suffers because ultimately what does it have to say? Puff is set up for ridicule. Nathan is set up for ridicule. Even Lila is set up, though for murder. In the end, when Puff returns to the wild in a public galivanting that feels like a ceremonial bon voyage from the society that came to love him, he then scampers out of the woods and escapes back to the comforts of society with Nathan’s French mistress. In the end, is the point that we’re all rubes and hypocrites?
This was Gondry’s first film and it feels like a training vehicle for what would be his real masterpiece, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite films ever. Gondry’s style is still recognizable, especially reminiscent of his tactile, kitschy, avant garde music videos he directed for Bjork, the queen of weird 1990s music videos. Gondry’s hardscrabble, idiosyncratic style was a natural match with Kaufman’s vivid imagination. It’s surprising that they never reunited after Eternal Sunshine. Gondry had a few movies (2006’s The Science of Sleep, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind) but they felt lacking, trifling without a stronger writer to guide and ground them in human drama. Gondry even tried his hand at studio action to middling results with 2010’s The Green Hornet. He mostly retreated back to music videos and commercials and had a short lived series on Showtime with Jim Carrey as a former children’s TV entertainer whose fantasy is blending with reality. It seemed like a good fit for Gondry, and a nice starring role for Carrey, but it was canceled after two seasons. Even the realm of music videos seems so far removed now, where Hollywood was snatching up every visual virtuoso.
Human Nature has plenty of familiar faces, no doubt eager to attach their names to a daring Kaufman movie. Arquette is winning and the best part of the movie. She would later win an Academy Award for her decade-in-the-making performance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Now I enjoy her in a chilly, villainous role as the shady corporate boss on Apple TV’s stunning sci-fi satire, Severance. Robbins is officious to a fault here. He too would later win an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River. Poor Ifans, so big after his scene-stealing role in 1999’s Notting Hill, who never seemed to capitalize on his success (even his Spider-Man villain got the weakest treatment in No Way Home). He’s had a long career and prominent TV roles with Berlin Station and the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. I did laugh out loud at his “yahoo” after being zapped by his electric shock collar. You’ll also see Rosie Perez, Peter Dinklage, Robert Forster, Toby Huss, Hillary Duff, and Mary Kay Place. As I said in 2002, acting is not the problem with Human Nature. It’s the writing and characterization that lets these people down.
I usually like to devote a paragraph to going back and re-evaluating my initial words from twenty years ago, but I agree with everything I wrote. Everything. That’s initially why I thought this would be a shorter review. What more am I going to say other than my initial opinion of this movie is the same opinion I have upon re-watching? With the distance, it’s even more clear to me that Human Nature is the weakest film of Kaufman’s career. Even a movie I didn’t really gel with, like 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, at least has a lot more ambition I can recognize. It’s a character study obfuscated with too much eccentric clutter but there’s still an artistic vision there, even if it didn’t work for me. Kaufman is too unique a voice to only have made three movies in the last 14 years, and it makes it even more frustrating when I don’t connect with his long-in-the-making projects. Human Nature is too limited in scope and characterization. It’s slightly interesting as a footnote to a great screenwriter but little more.
Re-Review Grade: C
Posted on April 20, 2022, in 2002 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged charlie kaufman, comedy, indie, michel gondry, miranda otto, nature, patricia arquette, peter dinklage, quirky, rhys ifans, romance, rosie perez, tim robbins. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.