There are fewer things sadder than witnessing the sophomore jinx strike again, but unhappily the instances of talented newcomers matching their initial triumphs the second time around are rare indeed. So however much one might have looked forward to Charlie Kaufman’s followup to his brilliantly outrageous script for “Being John Malkovich,” it will come as no great surprise that in the event, it turns out to be a distinct letdown. In “Human Nature” Kaufman tries to replicate the bizarre, oddball tone that gave his first picture such wildness and spark, but the premise this time around is much less adventurous, and the treatment by first-time director Michel Gondry lacks the inventiveness that Spike Jonze brought to the earlier picture. While “Malkovich” soared, “Human Nature” sputters.
The picture is basically a darkly comic updating of the old “wild boy” plot, in which a human being brought up in the jungle is returned to the modern world. The Tarzan figure in this case is Puff (Rhys Ifans), a fellow who was raised as an ape by his deranged father and, having been discovered in the wild, is placed in the care of animal behaviorist Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a nerdy, needy sort who’s obsessed with teaching critters such etiquette as eating with knife and fork as a result of the demands made on him in his youth by his parents (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place). Nathan, however, is married to Lila (Patricia Arquette), a nature writer who keeps secret from her husband the fact that she’s afflicted with a hormonal imbalance causing her to be extraordinarily hirsute–indeed, until she felt the urge to mate, she’d intended to live in the wild herself in order to let the hair grow uncontrolled. Returning from the forest, she’d sought out an electrologist (Rosie Perez) who helped control her condition and introduced her to Nathan. Now, rather predictably, as Puff is trained by Bronfman to control his animal urges and act in accordance with societal expectations, Lila finds herself of two minds about her husband’s work. Nathan, meanwhile, is seduced by his lab assistant (Miranda Otto), who feigns a French accent to get the man she desires. Matters come to a head when Lila discovers her spouse’s infidelity and takes aim at both him and his project.
It’s easy to see where Kaufman wants his treatment of Puff, Nathan and Lila to go. It’s supposed to be a twisted take on a familiar subject that, in the process of provoking mirth, raises serious issues of nature versus nurture, instinct versus civilization, freedom versus social inhibition. And it does include some weird touches that some will find amusing–a subplot involving two white mice that become the focus of Nathan’s experiments (they show up for a closing gag, too); a very strange song into which Lila bursts during her sojourn in the forest; Puff’s habitual inability to control his sexual impulses whenever Nathan attempts to introduce him to the outside world. But many of the elements of the plot (Lila’s skin affliction, for example) will be likely to cause many members of the audience discomfort rather than enjoyment. And numerous others come across as curiously flat and obvious. The whole business of Puff’s indoctrination into civilization, for instance, is obviously designed as a sort of bizarre refashioning of the “Pygmalion” story, but it’s not anywhere near as funny as what Mel Brooks accomplished with similar material in “Young Frankenstein.” And the background circumstances of all three principals have their amusing aspects, but too many arch, heavy-handed components as well. The structure of the piece has difficulties, too. The story is told in flashback, with Lila talking to police investigators, Puff to a congressional committee and Nathan, in “Sunset Boulevard” style, to a heavenly inquisitor in the afterlife. The way in which everything’s going to turn out, in other words, is telegraphed from the very beginning, and while Kaufman tries to tag on a twist at the close, it’s far too clumsy and implausible to work.
Still, despite the inherent problems, “Human Nature” might have come off better were Gondry’s direction less dilatory and the performances less stiff. Robbins uses his angular form to decent effect as Nathan, but his nebbishy turn never goes beyond the obvious. And while one has to admire the courage of both Arquette and Ifans in showing so much skin, they don’t get very far beneath it in dealing with their characters. Otto, Forster and Place are encouraged to play to the back rows of the auditorium–something that works better on the stage than the screen. Perez, however, is restrained by her typical standards, and is more likable than usual.
“Human Nature” is competently made from the technical perspective, though it has an overbright look and its employment of obviously unrealistic outdoor settings makes for a less magical ambience than the makers were aiming for. But it’s the substance of the film, not its accidents, that are the major difficulties here. For a story about liberation, it feels curiously constricted by the mechanics of its plot; and all the oddities that Kaufman adds to the mix prove a vain effort to transform a rather obvious piece into an edgy example of postmodern irony. Though it wants to be sharp and scintillating, the film is contrived and strangely stodgy instead.