For its first 20 minutes or so, Human Nature (screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s follow-up to his witty conceptual coup Being John Malkovich) looks like it’s going to be one of those egregiously wretched failures that become bad-movie legends. For some reason Kaufman has decided to introduce his complicated tale in a complicated manner, and so before we really know what’s going on we’re offered: A) Tim Robbins in a white suit in a white room with a bullet hole in his head, apparently dead and dazed and doing a remorseful soliloquy; B) A very dapper Rhys Ifans testifying before a congressional committee about his life as an ape; and C) A nude and extremely hairy Patricia Arquette climbing a jungle tree and singing a song about being one with nature. It seems a miscalculation — too much silliness too soon — but once the story settles into a more linear mode and the various absurdities start to coalesce, the movie becomes a smart and funny (though occasionally silly) satire.
Human Nature is a comedy about behavioral modification, both social and scientific. Robbins plays Nathan Bronfman, a scientist who was so traumatized by his parents’ mealtime injunctions that his pet project is to teach mice, via electroshock, proper table manners. Ifans, also a victim of parental weirdness, believes himself to be an ape — and after years of living in the jungle falls into Robbins’ rectifying hands, doomed to be electroshocked back into a civilized state. Arquette’s problem stems more from nature than nurturing, a hormonal imbalance causing her to sprout hair from head to toe. After she gives jungle life a try, loneliness leads her to opt instead for extreme and continual electrolysis. Disguised as a normal person, she falls for Robbins (and vice versa), abandoning her nature-loving principles and aiding him in his efforts to rehabilitate Ifans.
Much of the humor here arises from a combination of the various characters’ insecurities and the always-amazing lengths people will go to in order to get laid. The clash of warring natures gives the film a little more emotional depth than its premise might suggest, and Ifans (whom you may remember as Hugh Grant’s goony roommate in Notting Hill) does a nice comic turn as he evolves from savage to elegantly repressed.
Kaufman might have thrown a bit too much into the mix, but eventually his unique comic sense prevails, peppered with a surprising amount of insight into, well, human nature.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.