Human Nature

Human Nature immediately claims attention for being scripted by Charlie Kaufman, who previously teamed with director Spike Jonze on the brilliantly eccentric Being John Malkovich. Eccentric is still the order of the day in Human Nature. Just look at the characters. Tim Robbins plays Nathan, a behavioral scientist who teaches table manners to mice and narrates his story from the afterlife: Someone put a bullet in his forehead. Once upon a time, Nathan had issues about his teensy penis. He was a virgin until he met Lila, played by a livelier-than-usual Patricia Arquette. She's a nature writer with hair issues — her body was covered with the stuff until she found a good electrologist (Rosie Perez). Nathan and Lila are a match made in a Darwinian nightmare. On a forest walk, they find and capture a feral man (Rhys Ifans). Nathan names him Puff, pops him in a lab cage, and teaches him about manners, opera, show tunes and subduing his primal urges. It's a hoot watching Ifans (the scene-stealer of Notting Hill) humping furniture and floors and turning his body into the shape of a huge erection at the sight of Nathan's Frenchy lab assistant, Gabrielle (Miranda Otto, laying on the ooh-la-la). Nathan provides Puff with a definition of civilization — "When in doubt, don't do what you really want to do" — that could serve as a basis for a first-rate social satire. But the zany characters, once introduced, have nowhere to go. The movie lacks the energizing force that Jonze, a producer on this film, gave Malkovich. First-time feature director Michel Gondry, best known for Levi's commercials and Bjork videos, traffics in a stubborn freakishness that wears thin fast, robbing the characters of humanity and audiences of a rooting interest. It's Kaufman, a true talent, who keeps the ideas percolating even as the film flies off the rails.

From The Archives Issue 894: April 25, 2002