Thursday, December 11, 2008

Human Nature

Human Nature seems to be the forgotten film in the still-developing career of scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman: sandwiched in between two Spike Jonze-directed features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, it is saddled with a plot that, even by the outrageous standards of Kaufman's output, is frankly ridiculous. The film begins with an "opposites attract" love story between the repressed, lonely doctor Nathan (Tim Robbins) and the animalistic Lila (Patricia Arquette), who is afflicted with the rare condition of hirsutism, which causes her body to be covered in hair. Her condition causes her to embrace nature, where she lives as a beast, naked and free, until her desire for companionship drives her back to society and into Nathan's arms. She also winds up leading Nathan to a wild-man (Rhys Ifans), who was raised as an ape by his father, a businessman driven away from the human race after the Kennedy assassination ("apes don't assassinate their presidents, gentlemen!"). This apeman soon becomes Nathan's test subject in a series of experiments intended to instill civilization into a wild creature. This is an absurd premise, the kind of thing you'd expect from a Pauly Shore comedy rather than a Charlie Kaufman script; similar tropes have wound through countless brainless comedies over the years.

It is perhaps for this reason that the film is so often overlooked in discussions of Kaufman's work, even though it is also the feature film debut of director Michel Gondry. In all likelihood, it is Gondry's touch that makes the film work as well as it does, since his whimsy and playfulness is perfectly suited to this material; one struggles to imagine Jonze, who has brought a much darker sensibility to his two Kaufman-penned films, directing this deeply silly film. I do not use the phrase "deeply silly" lightly, either, since in Human Nature Kaufman mingles profundity and absurdity more thoroughly than in any of his other works. The film's premise sets up a number of simply ridiculous set pieces, sequences where it is impossible to watch without feeling mildly embarrassed for everyone involved. The spectacle of a fine actress like Patricia Arquette, wandering through the woods with her naked body cloaked in hair, acting like an ape, is very difficult to take seriously. Likewise, the Tarzan-like sequences of Lila and the apeman, dubbed "Puff," swinging through the trees in pursuit of one another against a patently artificial rear projection backdrop whose retro obviousness is a throwback to classic Hollywood aesthetics. Gondry completely embraces the script's silliness, investing scenes like this with a ludicrous matter-of-factness, diving into the humor and absurdity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the early scene where Lila, living in the wilderness in idyllic communion with nature, abruptly bursts into song like the heroine of a Disney picture, which is exactly how Gondry stages it. He inserts cutaways to cutesy animals gathered in the bushes nearby, and shoots through a soft-focus blur that captures Lila as she twirls and dances through the foliage, singing about the joys of nature. The incongruity between the Disney musical staging and her hairy naked body is hilarious. To some extent, Gondry's visual inventiveness and lighthearted sensibility is able to make something enjoyable of all this idiotic farce.

What's especially interesting about the film, though, is the way that Kaufman uses this pulpy, low-brow material to address complicated and weighty themes, bringing in the ideas about identity, society, and the human brain that flow through all of his scripts. Yes, it's a movie about an apeman and a girl with hair all over her body. But it's also a movie that directly addresses questions of nature and nurture, as well as what exactly constitutes a "civilized" human. The process by which Puff is civilized is, of course, as ludicrous as anything else in the film. Gondry uses it as an opportunity for a staggeringly funny extended montage, in which Nathan teaches the wild-man which fork to use for salad, how to behave at the opera, how to order at a fancy restaurant, and how to read Moby Dick. Ifans is hilarious in these sequences, slowly adapting from a grunting neanderthal into a cultured, cultivated man — or at least, a 1950s sitcom version of a cultured man, complete with smoking jacket, jaunty pipe, and a prim manner. Nathan, who was beaten into shape as a child by a pair of manners-obsessed, overbearing parents (Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster), is basically transforming Puff into a mirror image of himself, using conditioning methods remarkably like those his parents exerted on him. It is a program aimed at complete repression of natural urges and animal behavior; at one point, Nathan tells his subject, "when in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do." There's something poignant in the way Nathan is reenacting his own childhood torture here, and in the way that the formerly wild Puff comes to be grateful and pathetic, desperately seeking acceptance as a human. But the film largely concerns itself with getting the laughs, and the sight of Puff sitting in an opera box that Nathan set up within his cage is a great payoff.

Unfortunately, the jokey nature of these montages, as hilarious as they are, not only overshadows the emotional content of the story, but also elides some of the more interesting aspects of Puff's transition to civilization. The question of language and speech, seemingly at the center of this transformation, is curiously absent from the film, save for a few scenes of Puff learning how to repeat phrases by rote. This is, needless to say, no explanation for the eloquence he soon develops, and it's disappointing that the film never really addresses this question. Puff gets at it indirectly in an impassioned speech he delivers towards the end of the film, decrying words for their inability to communicate what he wants to say, but it's unfortunate that the film doesn't take this up as more of an issue. Kaufman and Gondry seem much more interested in the dichotomy between the animal and the so-called higher being within the human race. This is a recurring topic for Kaufman, who in his debut feature as a director this year, Synecdoche, New York, delves into human bodily processes and waste fluids with grim enthusiasm. He is fascinated by the commonality of humans with other lifeforms, a fact that human society as a whole is designed to gloss over. This is why the process of civilizing Puff largely consists of making him forget and repress his animal instincts, covering up his urges with external politeness.

To the extent that the film is able to explore these themes even amidst its strain of silly comedy, it is an interesting sophomore effort from Kaufman, as well as a transition from music videos to film for Gondry. The film is something of a failure nonetheless, especially when in its second half it increasingly descends into tired relationship drama, bringing in Nathan's faux-French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) to complicate the developing love quadrangle. The film especially falls apart in its last ten minutes, when the character motivation becomes convoluted and strained; these weren't particularly complex or well-developed characters to begin with, but the twists of the last few minutes make a mash of whatever consistency they possessed. Still, Human Nature is at least an intriguing failure, and even often an enjoyable one. There is enough humor and visual inventiveness in Gondry's treatment of this material that he is even able to overcome the script's faults and craft a light, confused, sporadically thought-provoking farce from a very unpromising premise.


Tony Dayoub said...

The one Charlie Kaufman film I have yet to see, and the most intriguing for me.

Fox said...

I'm a bigger fan of this film than you appear to be, but what still struck me about this review (especially in the last paragraph) is that it continued me on my path to trying to figure out who "the genius" is behind the Gondry/Kaufman collaborations. I tend to favor Gondry since I like his Kaufman-less films very much, but...

Ed Howard said...

Fox - I think Kaufman provides an interesting case for auteurist criticism, because the films he writes (prior to Synecdoche obviously) inevitably have two competing/collaborating auteurs, both of whom put their stamp on the project. Kaufman clearly has a very strong individual aesthetic that runs through all his films, no matter who is directing them, and yet his directors also make their presence felt. Jonze brings something much different than Gondry to his Kaufman films, a darker, more cynical and satiric perspective that is, on the basis of Synecdoche, probably closer to Kaufman's own natural tendencies than what Gondry does. In this particular film, I think it succeeds to the extent that Gondry is able to impart the material with his own playful sensibility, while it fails to the extent that Kaufman's cynicism rubs uncomfortably against Gondry's basic hopefulness. If Jonze had made the film as originally planned, it would undoubtedly have been a much darker and more malignant film, maybe not better but more tonally consistent at least.