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Human Nature

Beastly Notions Of Civilization

By Sandra M. Chung

Written by Charlie Kaufman

Directed by Michel Gondry

Starring Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette,Rhys Ifans

Rated R

Like that of most smart, talented film stars, Tim Robbins’ career has had some particularly steep ups and downs. He has starred in some profoundly memorable movies (The Shawshank Redemption) and some painfully awful ones (Mission to Mars). The latest Tim Robbins film takes the form of a cynical, amoral comedy that is closer to the flavor of The Hudsucker Proxy than that of I.Q. The new film’s tongue-in-cheek title, Human Nature, refers to a twisted mockery of modern science and modern humanity À la Brave New World. It’s hard to say whether this movie will be considered obscure and awful, or so ridiculous it’s entertaining.

An alabaster-skinned Tim Robbins wearing a snow-colored suit in an all-white room recounts the tale behind the bullet hole in his ashen forehead. The story begins with a naked, hairy woman frolicking among friendly woodland creatures. Lila (Patricia Arquette), a “nature writer,” gets closer to her subject by living for weeks in a tent in the forest. With a body rendered abnormally hairy by an hormonal disorder, she takes refuge from the cruel stares of her fellow humans in the solitude of wild living.

Upon her return to civilization, Lila makes an appointment with her friend Louise (Rosie Perez), who lends an ear to Lila’s woes and an electrolysis needle to her follicles. When Lila expresses a longing for a sensitive, intelligent companion, Louise sets her up on a date with Nathan, one of her therapist brother’s patients.

Nathan’s dysfunctional childhood in an exceedingly stuffy household has left him obsessed with the finer points of civility and table manners. His first few encounters with Lila’s savage etiquette nearly unravel his fragile composure (she talks with food in her mouth; he looks close to tears). Yet something clicks between the desperately lonely social misfits, and with the help of a gigantic razor and plentiful shaving cream, they fall into the comfortable rhythm of a romantic relationship.

One day while hiking together in a forest, Nathan and Lila come upon a feral man (Rhys Ifans) living in total ignorance of civilization. Nathan, an experimental psychologist, quickly seizes the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cultivate etiquette in a completely wild human being. He and his vivacious French assistant (Miranda Otto) put the wild man, dubbed Puff, through a series of lessons intended to mold the savage into an impeccably dressed, well-mannered gentleman.

The arrival of Puff disrupts Lila and Nathan’s quasi-idyllic home life. Tender-hearted Lila objects to the use of Puff as an experimental subject. She also feels neglected as Nathan’s lab work begins to take over his life. It’s likely the vivacious French assistant has something to do with that, and Lila begins to suspect as much. The ensuing mess of passion, betrayal, midgets, and revenge lead one to wonder whether civilization has made the savage less human, or if civilized humanity is really more savage than we realize.

Human Nature relies so heavily on its outrageous screenplay that everything else is more or less irrelevant so long as the lines are read straight up. All the characters are fairly simple caricatures whom the actors seem to enjoy portraying immensely. Arquette cuts her innocent, curvaceous sex appeal with Lila’s weird hairiness and desperation. Robbins as Nathan simply looks confused and conflicted. Ifans proudly spends half his screentime naked and hooting and the other half speaking and moving with exaggerated poise.

Human Nature has a very narrow target audience. It’s not for conservative highbrow viewers or psychologists who take their work so seriously as to be offended by the idea of teaching mice to eat their salads with the outermost fork. Yet it’s also impossible to fully appreciate it without considering the very serious intellectual debate over whether clothing and sophisticated machinery have really made man any better off at all.