Like a monkey that's wandered too far out on a branch, Human Nature spends most of its time in free-fall, fully expecting to grab another branch before making contact with terra firma. You have to give director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman credit for leaving the rules of classic storytelling behind, but you also have to be prepared to sit through a movie that's held together with sheer whimsy ' and flimsy whimsy, at that. Kaufman was the guy who scribbled Being John Malkovich, presumably on the back of a coffee-stained paper napkin. And Human Nature has that movie's casual surrealism, its flights of fancy grounded in something resembling reality. But Being John Malkovich had a truly inspired premise ' i.e., being John Malkovich. Human Nature, as its title suggests, has a rather more grandiose mission. It wants to get at what it means to be human.
Using humor, of course. And nudity, for those of you who are beginning to suspect the movie has nothing to offer. As a beautiful woman with an ugly hormonal problem, Patricia Arquette spends a lot of time roaming through the woods without benefit of clothes. The catch is that her body's covered with hair, a condition that's never explained, just exploited as a reminder of the thin boundary between nature and nurture, savagery and civilization. Make that Civilization and Its Discontents, because Human Nature has bought Freud's argument about the battle between social control and primitive instinct hook, line and sinker. Somehow, Arquette's wild child winds up with Tim Robbins' decidedly repressed scientist, who's been trying to teach lab rats table manners using electroshock. The lovebirds are a match made in heaven as long as Arquette 1) keeps her body shaved and 2) uses the right salad fork.
Oh, she also has to keep her hands off Rhys Ifans' Puff, who was raised as an ape but has subsequently been given the Tarzan/Pygmalion treatment by Robbins. One small glitch in Puff's education: He tends to hump everything that moves, after which he invariably says, "I'm sorry, it shan't happen again." I laughed the second time he said that, which is more than I can say for the rest of the movie. Determinedly weird, Human Nature is only as good as its individual quirks, and I got the impression, while watching it, that Kaufman was drawing less on his unconscious mind than on his conscious mind, the one that would like to repeat the success of Being John Malkovich. "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do," Robbins tells Puff before sending him out into the world. What I really wanted to do, about halfway through Human Nature, was hurl something at the screen. Alas, I'm far too civilized.