Sex and civilization

Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette experience a sublime backpacking moment in <i>Human Nature</i>, when young Tarzan crosses their path.

Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette experience a sublime backpacking moment in Human Nature, when young Tarzan crosses their path.

Rated 3.0

Human Nature, the new movie directed by music video-maker Michel Gondry, was written by Charlie Kaufman, whose first screenplay was Being John Malkovich. This is one of those cases where the “author” of a movie is clearly the writer rather than the director. Gondry’s direction is adequate—his pacing is deft and he orchestrates well the performances of his actors—but what gives Human Nature its unique feel is Kaufman’s script. It’s also obviously the work of the man who wrote Being John Malkovich—it has the same kind of offbeat unpredictability.

The free-association plot concerns Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a scientist whose big project has him trying to teach table manners to mice, putting them at tiny tables with tiny salad plates and zapping them with electrical charges when they reach for the wrong tiny fork. Coincidentally, when Nathan was a child his uptight parents (Robert Forster, Mary Kay Place) would send him to his room for using the wrong fork, but Nathan himself doesn’t see any connection; when his shrink suggests it, he shrugs: “That’s kind of a stretch, don’t you think, Doc?”

Then there’s Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette), afflicted since puberty by a condition that causes hair to grow profusely over her entire body, from her eyes to her toes. Driven first to the brink of suicide, then to a life in the wilderness where she becomes a famed nature writer, her sexual frustration in time brings her back to civilization and electrolysis. Her electrologist (Rosie Perez), the sister of Nathan’s shrink, tells her that Nathan loves her books, and the two begin dating.

One day, on an outing, the two discover a feral man (Rhys Ifans) who has been raised as an ape—not by an ape, but by his mad father who thought he was an ape and kidnapped the baby boy from his mother. Nathan brings the man back to his lab, names him “Puff” (why is a long story), and sets about civilizing him much the same way he taught mice to eat salad. He is helped in this by Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) his assistant with a fake French accent and hots for the boss. It is, in fact, lust for Gabrielle (the one thing Nathan and Puff have in common) that prompts Puff to cooperate with the efforts to civilize him—“I decided,” he testifies, “that I wanted me some of that.”

Kaufman’s script isn’t quite as linear as a synopsis makes it sound. In fact, the movie is told mostly in flashback by three people giving testimony—Lila to the police, Puff before a Congressional committee, and Nathan in a room of unearthly white, with a neat bullet hole in his forehead, to someone only he can see. The general gist of the plot is, of course, how Nathan got that hole in his forehead. Along the way Kaufman scores a number of rhetorical points about the tension between nature and civilization, and the drive for sex. In fact, in the oddball world of Charlie Kaufman’s script, it’s the appetite for sex that is the impetus for what passes for civilization: sexual frustration drives Lila to move back to the city and control her body hair, first by shaving, then, bit by bit, with electrolysis. And desire—seeing Nathan and Gabrielle going at it in the lab—leads Puff to play the game—to shave his own beard and dress up in tuxes and smoking jackets and say things like “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” and “I beg your pardon, madame, it’ll never happen again.”

Human Nature isn’t unpredictable in the sense that we don’t know where the story is headed—the flashback structure tells us, generally, how things are going to end up—but in the sense that we don’t know how it’s going to get there. Scraps of philosophy keep whimsically wafting in from left field; sometimes they’re expected and sometimes not. Just when we think the movie is going to be one of those stories where Civilization uses the Noble Savage as a stick to beat itself with, Kaufman pulls one last mischievous twist out of his bag of tricks—winking over his shoulder at us as he ties things up, letting us know there’s more where that came from.