Everyone knows that animals mark their territory -- via a number of sensory-based means - for others of their species to know who they are and where they've been. Humans do the same, but, aside from some crude men, utilize different methods to accomplish the same.
Even those who aren't famous or haven't constructed some sort of business, building or other entity that survives them, however, still leave their mark - one way or another -- in the world. Of course, considering what humans are capable of, both intentionally and accidentally, some might consider such marks stains.
Thus the title of "The Human Stain," author Philip Roth's third installment of a literary series about societal discord. With the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as its thematic backdrop setting, the 2000 novel was about reinventing oneself and the lasting effects of that on those who change as well as others in their lives.
In adapting the work for the big screen, acclaimed, Oscar-winning director Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart") obviously wanted to do the novel justice and find the right performers who would be best for the parts. In casting the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise (all of whom have won or been nominated for Oscars), he's certainly assembled a terrific cast of talented performers.
There's just one problem, however, that turns out to be a major one, in regards to one bit of that casting. Since it's a major plot point and a surprise one at that, I can't go into specifics without giving away everything. I will say, though, that a certain character revelation is so jarring, initially confusing and ultimately unbelievable - based on the real person embodying the part - that most viewers are apt to be perplexed and thus removed from the proceedings as they ponder the plot and character related news.
Since most everything that occurs in the film revolves around that character and the revelatory surprise, it turns out to be a huge bump over which the picture stumbles and never quite regains its footing or balance. It's a problem not present in the book, however, since the reader does his or her own visualization of the character and thus isn't set on how the person actually looks.
There are some other problems as well, although they're not quite as disruptive and obvious. As the occasional narrator, Sinise's ("Impostor," "Forrest Gump) character isn't really necessary (which may be different in the book) and feels too much like a contrived sounding-board than an integral cog in the storytelling machine. That said, he does have some decent scenes in the film, including an impromptu dance with Hopkins' character and a nicely played confrontation moment with Harris' volatile one.
The latter performer ("Radio," "The Hours"), while as solid and mesmerizing as ever in his supporting role, likewise doesn't get as much screen time as I would have liked. As a result, his scenes, along with most of the film, never quite gel. There are various terrific individual moments and storylines, but they simply don't always fit together as well as they could and probably should have.
Some of that stems from the constant switching back and forth between the contemporary story and various flashbacks featuring Wentworth Miller (making his feature film debut) playing Hopkins ("Hearts of Atlantis," the "Hannibal Lecter" films) as a young man. While the symbolism and the alluring but separate female characters played by Kidman ("The Others," "Moulin Rouge") and Jacinda Barrett ("Ladder 49," "Campfire Tales") obviously tie the two characters and periods together in theme, the two parts just didn't mesh as seamlessly as I thought they would.
Another problem is that Miller and Hopkins simply don't look or sound alike enough to make you believe they're the same character at different ages. It's yet another casting problem that ends up being distracting.
All of that said, you might be surprised that I'm giving the film a passing grade. That's due to the strong to brilliant performances from the lead performers as well as the way in which Benton has taken fellow director Nicholas Meyer's ("Time After Time," "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution") screenplay adaptation of the novel and created some memorable scenes.
Beyond Harris and Sinise, Hopkins is as reliable as ever, despite having to contend with a few awkward moments and/or lines of dialogue. It's Kidman, however, who once again steals the show. Just as she did as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," she completely disappears into her "trailer trash" character who's motivated by her own set of inner demons. Supporting work from the likes of Miller, Barret and Anna Deavere Smith ("Dave," "Philadelphia") is all good.
Due to that solid work in front of the camera and some memorable and well-crafted individual moments, I just wished that everything fit together better as a collective and cohesive whole, and that one big part of the casting wasn't so incongruous with the big revelatory surprise. If you see the film - and you probably should if you like strong bits of acting - you'll immediately sense the glaring problem that will have you wondering if you've heard and/or seen right.
You'll then likely join the consensus that there was a major flaw in the casting in relation to the performer's physical characteristics (and how they relate to the important plot points that fuel the film). It's not a fatal defect, but it's big enough to distract the viewer in an unwelcome and unnecessary fashion. That and a few other problems result in "The Human Stain" only rating as a 6 out of 10.