Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Rhys Ifans, Patricia Arquette
and Tim Robbins
The unpredictability, wit and strangeness of Being John Malkovich naturally raises hopes for Human Nature, which was penned by the same artfully demented scriptwriter, Charlie Kaufman.
First, it must be said that this new film, directed by French music-video director Michel Gondry (Beck, Foo Fighters, the Rolling Stones), doesn't measure up to the previous one, about people going on tours in the famed Chicago actor's head. Still, this arch farce about "primitive" versus "civilized" is distinguished by at least one mentally adhesive image: the disconcerting vision of Patricia Arquette in the nude, her body covered with dark fuzzy hair.
Spike Jonze, who directed Being John Malkovich, found the right jumpy, claustrophic style to match Kaufman's involuted quirky narrative. Painting on a larger theme of civilization and some of its malcontents, Gondry is content to riff off a series of snappy gags with little dramatic context. Sure there's the self-congratulatory name-dropping (Wittgenstein, Picasso), but no momentum, just a flurry of whimsical set pieces on a spinning merry-go-round.
The central story concerns the rehabilitation of a wild man, with echoes of such serious films as François Truffaut's The Wild Child,Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. In this case, the hairy wild man (Rhys Ifans, who played Hugh Grant's semi-feral roommate in Notting Hill)is testifying before Congress, explaining the chain of events that led up to a murder in the woods.
The story concerns Lila (Patricia Arquette), a young woman afflicted since puberty with a rare hormonal disorder that has caused her body to be covered with fuzzy down. On the point of suicide, she spots a mouse and decides that she will learn to love her fur by going to live in the wild. She supports her wild existence, not just by foraging, but with a series of feminist/naturalist books about going primitive which become a publishing sensation.
Finally, Lila's animal drives take her back to the city, where her electrolysist (Rosie Perez) sets her up with the perfect mate: A near-sighted, 35-year-old, virgin animal behaviourist named Nathan (Tim Robbins).
Emotionally traumatized by his own repressed parents (Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster), Nathan is a man of limited self-knowledge. He rejects his psychiatrist's suggestion that there may be some connection between his traumatic childhood dinners and punitive parents and his current obsession with teaching white mice table manners using shock therapy.
While other women shave their legs for men, Lila shaves everything for Nathan, and casts aside her nature-loving convictions as well. When the two find a feral man in the forest, she even helps him take the creature to his lab for study. Kept in a plastic cell and named "Puff" by Nathan's seductive French assistant, Gabrielle (Miranda Otto), the subject soon learns to be civilized. "When in doubt, don't do what you really want to do," explains Nathan.
As Nathan and Gabrielle begin to discover their own animal attractions, Puff deduces that the route to nookie is to become a supercilious twit like Nathan. Soon, he's able to graduate from an electric-shock collar to an ascot, to reading Melville and choosing wines, while talking in a George Plimpton accent. After he survives a Hooters dinner without attempting to hump the waitresses, he is taken on the lecture circuit with Nathan. At least in daylight hours, he is the model of successful repression.
A few more plot permutations follow, as Lila, who feels she has given up both her body hair and her soul to be with Nathan, becomes determined to save Puff from civilization.
Human Nature's zigzag ingenuity wears out some time before the farce bounces slowly to an uneven conclusion. For all its highfalutin title and corkscrew narrative, the movie turns out to be not much more than a shaggy human tale.