[Screen It]

(2002) (Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette) (R)

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Comedy: The lives of an excessively hairy novelist, a research scientist, and his assistant are changed when they discover a feral man and try to convert him from an ape-like being into a civilized human.
Nathan Bronfman (TIM ROBBINS) is a research scientist whose formal and strict upbringing regarding his table manners years ago at the hands of his parents (ROBERT FORSTER and MARY KAY PLACE) led him to attempt to teach the same to ordinary mice.

Lila Jute (PATRICIA ARQUETTE) is a woman whose excessive hairiness eventually led her to move into the woods and become a best-selling nature writer. Yet, when she turns thirty and her hormones start calling, she decides she must "fit in" with how "normal" women look and thus visits Louise (ROSIE PEREZ), an electrolysis technician who removes her hair and fixes her up with Nathan.

The two immediately hit it off despite their idiosyncrasies and Lila's hiding of her hairiness from Nathan. Their lives change, however, when they come across a feral man (RHYS IFANS) living in the woods who was raised by a man who thought of himself as an ape. Believing he can "save" this man that his assistant, Gabrielle (MIRANDA OTTO), names "Puff," Nathan sets out to condition him to be a civilized human.

Yet, his attention paid to Puff and Gabrielle -- who's obviously interested in her boss in more than just a professional way - puts a strain on his relationship with Lila. As things progress along with Puff's rapid learning curve, they eventually go out of control, leading to the various characters having to deal with the many facets of human nature, including murder.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
With most critics attending 200 or more film screening year in and year out, we see our share of the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, the majority of what's offered in any given year falls into or at least leans far more toward the latter two categories than the first. Accordingly, despite us wanting most every film to be terrific - for the sake of the picture, its viewers and the sanity of critics - it's not often that we eagerly anticipate seeing the latest release.

For me, "Human Nature" was one of the exceptions, not necessarily for who was in it or the plot description, but instead for who wrote it -- Charlie Kaufman. While the name probably won't ring a bell for many outside of the filmmaking industry, the novice movie scribe wrote the brilliant and Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Being John Malkovich," one of the more innovative and clever films of the past several years, and certainly one of the oddest.

That last description equally applies to this picture with little debate, thanks to the nonstop procession from start to finish of oddities in both character and plot. Unfortunately, where "BJM" was often hilariously weird, this effort - from first time director Michel Gondry (who previously helmed music videos and commercials, natch) - is noticeably far more lame than funny.

In fact, beyond a few scenes involving some computer-generated mice learning table manners - picking up the correct fork for salad - nothing in the film is funny, let alone hilarious. If a film could be labeled as a belly flop, this one slaps the water in such a painful fashion that you can't help but grimace while watching each subsequent attempt repeatedly smack into the face of failure.

While you can appreciate the effort to be different from normal Hollywood offerings - and there's little question that this one is just that - and one can see the same tone of bizarre humor that fueled "BJM," most everything about this film falls completely flat.

The trouble with this sort of material and attempted humor is that it's tricky to pull off. If not handled, presented and timed just right, what may have been hilarious ends up being just bad. Sadly, that's the case here, and much of the blame must be leveled at Gondry. Although the effort thankfully doesn't reek of music video or polished commercial trappings as is often the case with such first-time, feature filmmakers, most everything about it - the pacing, performances he gets from his cast and the execution of the material -- feels off.

The same easily could have held true with "BJM," but that effort had a more cohesive and innovative script as well as the talented Spike Jonze at the helm. While he's involved with this effort, it's only as producer, although his and Kaufman's names were probably what convinced the various performers that all would be well if they signed on to appear in it.

After all, how else could you sell an actress on a part where she's to walk through obviously faked woods while nude, but covered in patches of animal-like fur, and then suddenly break out into song? Whatever the reason or reasoning may have been, Patricia Arquette ("Bringing Out the Dead," "Stigmata") can't do anything remotely interesting with the part.

That said, it's relatively easy to note the thematic representation of her character (the taming of her "wild" side ultimately ruins her) as well as those played by Tim Robbins ("Antitrust," "Arlington Road") as the anal, nature-hating scientist and Rhys Ifans ("The Shipping News," "Notting Hill") as his pet project of turning a feral man into a civilized human being.

Unfortunately, their characters and performances are also off-key, and while elements regarding them might have seemed funny in written form, they simply aren't as filmed. Miranda Otto ("What Lies Beneath," "Love Serenade") and Rosie Perez ("It Could Happen To You," "Fearless") appear in smaller roles, but similarly can't do much with them, which also holds true for Robert Forster ("Mulholland Drive," "Jackie Brown") and Mary Kay Place ("Girl, Interrupted," "The Big Chill") as Nathan's "Leave it to Beaver gone over the edge" type parents.

Considering all of the material regarding people causing others to change, this could have been and perhaps was intended to be a comical riff or version of "A Clockwork Orange," what with its adverse human conditioning elements. Alas, it's not anything remotely as clever as that.

While the elements and potential for a wickedly funny comedy are present, the end result is like watching an elementary school band performing one of Beethoven's classic works and then listening to the recording on a record player bedeviled by inconsistent speed and a skipping problem. You'll recognize that there's something intriguing within all of the noise, but it's simply too painful to stick around trying to hear it.

A cinematic effort that simply doesn't work, "Human Nature" reminded me of the little seen and quite awful comedy, "Company Man," simply for giving it its all. Although one can appreciate the attempt of trying to be different and give it one's all - at least in theory -- you simply can't enjoy the excruciating experience of watching it repeatedly flop. The film rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed April 8, 2002 / Posted April 12, 2002

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