Human Nature (2001) Movie Review

David Lynch used to be the master of quirk, making movies that lived and breathed in a (very strange) world of their own, complete with unpredictable rules that seems to change as the need arises. Then Tim Burton came on the scene and took “weird” to a new level with Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Now you can add screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to that list, as his 2000 Being John Malkovich broke the mold about what qualified as “weird” in the new millennium. Now, with Human Nature, Kaufman has once again taken us into the mind of a, well, weird guy — himself.

Human Nature opens with Lila (Patricia Arquette) being questioned by the cops for the murder of Nathan (Tim Robbins). Lila, we learn, was a circus freak in her younger days, her fame coming from an odd hormonal imbalance in her body that causes her to grow body hair like an ape. Now an adult, Lila has to shave her body every night lest people think she’s a freak. And the one person she’s most afraid of learning her secret is her boyfriend Nathan, a behavioral scientist raised by two adopted parents that used him as their own personal experiment in proper etiquette, thus leading to Nathan’s obsession with training various creatures (like two white mice) to be “civilized” — such as eating with the right forks, etc.

Nathan and Lila’s wacky world becomes even wackier when, on a nature hike, they run across Puff (Rhys Ifans), a grown man raised in the woods as an ape. Nathan becomes obsessed with civilizing Puff, and soon Puff is reading “Moby Dick” and lecturing at conferences, bringing fame to Nathan, but distancing Lila. So if everything is going so great for Nathan, why is he telling his story with a bullet hole in his forehead?

It’s inevitable that people will compare Human Nature to Kaufman’s previous film, the critically and commercially successful Being John Malkovich. Kaufman’s name has become so well known now that nothing he does in the future will be taken at face value, but always compared to his previous works. That’s the price of success. Just ask Spielberg or Lucas or Coppola. Not a bad price, really.

Human Nature is a quirky film that lives in a world of its own, a world where all of its oddball characters and situations exist without question. For instance, once Puff is “civilized” and taken into the world with Nathan, he still wears a shock collar around his neck that allows Nathan to shock him whenever he does something “uncivilized.” Of course in the real world people would be horrified at this, but in Human Nature no one bats an eye.

So is Human Nature as good as Being John Malkovich? Well, no. The one glaring fault I can find with Human Nature is that director Michel Gondry, perhaps realizing that he’s making a “quirky film,” goes out of his way to remind us this is a “quirky film.” As a result, the movie employs a gimmicky framing device for the flashback sequences. The technique is quite creative, but unfortunately it draws too much attention to itself and for a movie that already lacks credibility, watching flashback sequences as if we’re seeing an “old time movie screen” is not a good way to trick people into your world. Being John Malkovich succeeded because it took everything it did and said with such a serious face, whereas Human Nature sometimes seems too preoccupied with screaming “quirky film here!” at us.

The acting by Tim Robbins (Nathan) is superb. Robbins is so paranoid, neurotic, and screwed up that you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, even when he’s shocking innocent little mice to get them to use the right fork for their salad dinner. (I kid you not.) Less effective is Patricia Arquette, who goes without clothes for much of the movie, but is oddly unconvincing as the desperate Lila, who sells her soul to be with Nathan, and then turns into a Sarah Conner-like figure at the end of the film.

Rhys Ifans (Puff) does the “untamed man-ape” very well, but his “civilized Puff” is less interesting then when he’s humping his glass cage or humping the leg of a waitress who takes his order. Puff’s recurring scene where he’s giving a speech at a Senate hearing is dreadfully dull. The two people who play Nathan’s parents are strangely eerie, as they turn out to be freaks themselves. For example, after Nathan is all grown up and moved out of the house, the couple gets themselves another adopted child, and starts the process all over again. How weird is that household?

Human Nature works best when it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but plays its goofy situations with a straight face. It falters quite a bit when it tries to remind us it’s being quirky — or just “reminds” us of anything at all. Patricia Arquette is not right for the role, but Tim Robbins is dead-on as the man most in need of therapy.

A lot of therapy, natch.

Michel Gondry (director) / Charlie Kaufman (screenplay)
CAST: Patricia Arquette …. Lila Jute
Rhys Ifans …. Puff
Tim Robbins …. Nathan Bronfman

Buy Human Nature on DVD