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With: Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Rosie Perez, Robert Forester, Mary Kay Place
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Directed by: Michel Gondry
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and language
Running Time: 96
Date: 05/18/2001

Human Nature (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

To Err Is 'Human'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As Human Nature begins with two odd little mice scurrying through the woods under the opening titles, fans of Being John Malkovich will instantly recognize Charlie Kaufman's handiwork -- that special, peculiar off-kilter universe where ideas flow unchained.

But when it ends, this new picture has become a mix of Kaufman and music video director Michel Gondry. Things get mixed up, shoot off into unexplained, uninteresting directions, and we don't know quite how it got that way.

Human Nature deals with three odd people whose paths have never crossed before the story starts. Each character narrates his own version of the tale: Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) tells his tale from a white room in heaven, a bullet in his head having ended his time on earth. Nature writer Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) explains her story while in police custody. And Puff (Rhys Ifans) testifies before congress, explaining how his insane father (who thought he was an ape) raised him in the woods.

Lila's story begins as puberty sets in and she begins growing hair all over her body. After a stint as a freakshow performer, she retreats to the woods to write nature books. But her hormones begin calling and she journeys back to civilization to find a mate. Her near-perfect match is Nathan, a scientist who teaches table manners to mice.

While hiking in the woods, the couple stumbles across Puff, a man with no language or social skills. Nathan puts his expertise to work and begins to train Puff in the ways of the world. But at a restaurant, Puff cannot control his sexual urges and tries to mount a hapless waitress. "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do," Nathan scolds him, summing up one of the film's central themes.

This triangle turns into a quadrangle when Nathan's sexy French assistant (Miranda Otto) begins coming onto him, but this becomes the movie's most unruly storyline. Not only does she turn out to be a charlatan only pretending to be French, her character doesn't seem to mesh with what's going on around her. She doesn't make any sense.

In fact, not everything in Human Nature congeals quite as neatly and as interestingly as Being John Malkovich. Either that, or they congeal a little too neatly, as when the hairy Lila and the ape-man Puff (he's named after her dog) run off to live in the forest together.

I very much admired the movie's brave look at human sexuality, much like 40 Days and 40 Nights, admitting that as human beings, we're barely in control of our primal urges. Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans perfectly embody this, running around naked for long passages, and representing the free urge. Robbins on the other hand, represents the repressed urge, and he winds up dead.

But again the French assistant seems to throw the balance off, and the movie doesn't know what to do with her or how to wrap things up after her. Human Nature initially succeeds by allowing itself to go crazy, but then ultimately fails by spinning out of control. It passes the breaking point. We ride along happily inside this crazy universe until things begin to flail about and we jump out of the way. And unfortunately, the frayed, tattered ends of this film are what stay with us after we leave the theater.

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