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‘Human Nature’ is definitively urban

By Tim Molly, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday April 12, 2002

In the opening scene of “Human Nature” a new comedy from “Being John Malkovich” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, a pair of country mice use their rodent wiles to outwit a hawk. 

In the film’s sad final image, the furry white critters stand at the edge of a road, trying to leave the wild behind and hitchhike to what they see as the easy life in the Big Apple. 

“Human Nature” is a film about country mice and city mice made by people who clearly have a city mouse sensibility. 

They seem to have a real nostalgia for the great outdoors, but their urbane sense of irony and deadened emotional range prevent them from making a strong endorsement of eschewing civilization for the wild. 

What we get instead is a movie that urges us to be true to our instincts, even if we continue to dwell somewhere far from nature. The film makes its point stylishly, but the point has been made many, many times before, even if people keep forgetting it. 

It’s too bad “Human Nature” isn’t more bold in its criticisms of so-called civilized life, because more flashes of passion from Kaufman could have made this a great movie instead of just a funny one. 

Patricia Arquette stars as Lila, a wilderness writer who has abandoned the big city because of a hormonal disorder that causes her to grow thick hair all over her face and body. But she eventually returns to city life because she wants a man. She finds one, though a very flawed one, in Nathan (Tim Robbins), a behaviorist obsessed with teaching table manners to rodents. 

Nathan’s obsession makes for some of the biggest laughs in the movie. He’s an absurdly stuffy character who uses words like “ergo” on his first date with Lila. 

But the character’s silliness nullifies any hope that the movie will offer a serious critique of modern life. Nathan is such a strawman that there’s no real contest between the civilization he represents and Lila’s great outdoors. 

Fortunately, before we have much time to dwell on this, the plot shifts with the introduction of a feral man who thinks he’s an ape (Rhys Ifans, best known for “Notting Hill”). 

Nathan and his seductive assistant, Gabrielle (Miranda Otto), name him Puff and set out to make him civilized through a series of conditioning experiments that seem straight out of “Clockwork Orange.” 

Puff develops good elocution, proper table manners, and enthusiasm for reading “Moby Dick” in the belief that this will persuade women to have sex with him. But because the terminally repressed Nathan equates sex with savagery, Puff isn’t allowed to act on his impulses. 

“Whenever in doubt,” Nathan explains, “don’t ever do what you really want to do.” 

The rest of the film chronicles Puff’s orientation into civilized life and eventual return to the wild. The conclusion is anything but optimistic — remember those sad little mice? — suggesting that Kaufman and first-time director Michel Gondry aspired to make some grand statement, not just some good jokes. 

If they intended to make a broad point about modern society’s disconnection from nature, they fail. The film is so absurdist that the filmmakers can plausibly deny having such high intentions. But it’s just emotional and stylish enough that they can claim credit for such a statement if anyone happens to pick up on it. 

“Human Nature,” a Fine Line Features release, is rated R for sexuality/nudity and language. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars (out of four).