Video Vault: Human Nature

Human Nature
2001 – Michel Gondry
Rated R: 96 minutes
Vault Rating: 7

Well. It’s a Charlie Kauffman script. That should about say everything for those picking up this curio from the Adventure / Silver Screen shelves.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, consider the following writing credits: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Being John Malkovich.”

You will doubtless love Kauffman’s films — for they are all Kauffman’s films, not entirely their directors’ — or hate them, so original are the ideas that drive them. And Mr. Kauffman tends to drag us into uncomfortable quarters where we don’t necessarily want to be. He has a way of looking in a mirror that is pointed at another mirror that is …

Kauffman’s world is a reflexive one where he examines the pathways of the mind, of human nature, of love, and sometimes of game show hosts.

In today’s case in point, we examine human nature as an oxymoron. The film centers on four cleverly set people: Puff (Rhys Ifans), who was raised in the wild as an ape; Lila (Patricia Arquette), who is an otherwise beautiful woman except that she’s covered with body hair; Dr. Bronfman (Tim Robbins), who is a repressed behavioral scientist carrying out his repressed parents’ peculiarities on lab mice, and a sexy French lab assistant (Miranda Otto). It is a love triangle with bizarre turns, and I’m sure if you haven’t traveled with Kauffman before (It is best to start out with “Malkovich” and then proceed slowly.) it’ll flip you out.

Lila, who has for years eschewed human society because of her deformity, has become a successful nature writer. She returns to the human world because she’s horny.

Puff is found in the wild by Dr. Bronfman and captured so that the scientist can save the ape-man from his natural urges, training him in a painfully funny way with a shock collar toward civilized behaviour.

“When in doubt,” says Bronfman to Puff, “Never do what you really want to do.” Ah! Civilization.

In Kauffman’s script, the baser human instincts … you know, the ones Madison Avenue counts on … are those arising from nature and they are contrary to the human condition of rising above nature.

Indeed “human” and “nature” are opposites here. How they attract are the chief laughs in this queerly funny, sometimes weirdly uncomfortable tale. And they attract every which way. More rich for me were many small jags and points made with tiny stiletto lines that may zoom right over some viewer’s heads.

There is a scene that deliciously recalls “A Clockwork Orange” after Puff has been reprogrammed, that culminates in a classic Lawrence Welk line. Some of the more punishing and knowing scenes occur across the Bronfman family table, a wasteland of withering manners and learned behavior.

After Kauffman has jovially run us around the mulberry bush, he throws us a bone in a surprisingly apt last scene where we find nature is one thing, nurture is another and civilization is some strange synthesis that definitely has its selling points.

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As an aside, having seen “Human Nature,” I find myself wishing they’d turned the script for Tim Burton’s awful remake of “Planet of the Apes” over to Kauffman. I feel sure we’d have been crossing some lines that Mr. Burton didn’t have the nerve to cross …

So until Zera and Bright Eyes get it on in the monkey house … Enjoy!

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