As a child, I used to look forward to Movieline’s annual list of the best unproduced screenplays with feverish anticipation. Every script radiated boundless promise. They all sounded so weird, so brilliant, so original, so goddamned fascinating, so vastly superior to the films that actually got made. I daydreamed about the masterpieces that would ensue if only Hollywood had the vision to turn these genius embryos into movies.
There is something incredibly seductive about potential. What might be is invariably more tantalizing than what is. Human Nature, today’s entry in My Year Of Flops, feels like a script custom-made for Movieline’s list of the best unproduced screenplays, a daring, one-of-a-kind conceptual mindfuck that sounds like either the blueprint for an instant classic, or a train wreck. So forget, for a moment, the shrug of mild disappointment that greeted Human Nature’s release, and contemplate it not as a film that underperformed spectacularly, but rather as a dazzling possibility.
Think about how exciting and surreal the film sounds in abstract: It’s a deeply sad comic fable about the nature of civilization, from the wildly acclaimed super-genius behind Being John Malkovich. It features a love quadrangle involving a man who is raised in the wild as an ape, and gets corrupted rather than elevated by his integration into human society (Rhys Ifans); the world’s hairiest woman (Patricia Arquette); a tiny-penised scientist intent on teaching table manners to mice (Tim Robbins); and the girliest scientific researcher in existence (Miranda Otto).
Robbins’ comically undersized genitalia, incidentally, reminds me of perhaps the single greatest line of narration in documentary history. In a feature about Under The Volcano author Malcolm Lowry, included in Criterion’s fine Under The Volcano DVD, the narrator casually mentions that Lowry’s “incredibly tiny penis made him a figure of fun during bathtime” at his British boarding school. Thanks to that line, the following facts are now drilled into my mind about Malcolm Lowry:
1. He wrote Under The Volcano.
2. He was an alcoholic.
3. His incredibly tiny penis made him a figure of fun during bathtime.
Throw in a producer (Spike Jonze) and director (Michel Gondry) who each helped elevate the music video from a glorified commercial for pop music to a borderline avant-garde art form, and you have the makings of a masterpiece on par with Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s previous collaboration, Being John Malkovich, a film so bold and brilliant, it seemed to single-handedly reinvent film and pointed the way toward a carnival-esque cinema of the absurd, rooted in agonizing human emotions.
Surprisingly, Human Nature almost made it to the big screen before Being John Malkovich. Steven Soderbergh was set to direct it with David Hyde Pierce in the Robbins role, Marisa Tomei in the part eventually played by Arquette, and, horror of horrors, Chris Kattan in the Ifans role. (Soderbergh decided to direct Out Of Sight instead.)
Human Nature oozes so much potential in abstract; it’s borderline tragic that it became merely a pretty good film. All the ingredients were there, but somewhere between the page and the screen, greatness slipped out of its grasp. Along with Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, it became a scraggly little orphan of Kaufman’s filmography, the kind of odd duck that attracts apologists rather than fans. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Gondry and Kaufman’s second collaboration as director and writer, respectively, received the rapturous critical and commercial reception that eluded Human Nature.
Human Nature offers an arch, absurdist take on the Tarzan legend through the story of a young man whose father (Toby Huss) decided to turn his back on the compromises and hypocrisy of human society, and live as an ape. Huss is institutionalized for attempting to live inside the ape house at a local zoo, and he gradually comes to see himself as a human being, but his years of forced socialization are instantly undone by the trauma of the Kennedy assassination. Huss doesn’t want to be part of any species that could create something so terrible—“Apes don’t assassinate their presidents, gentleman!” the delightfully, improbably proper Huss reminds us and Congress in the testimony that provides the film’s framing device—so he retreats back to the wilderness, where he raises the boy who will grow up to be Ifans as a monkey.
While Ifans is raised as a wild thing, Robbins is indoctrinated in the ways of civilization by rigidly bourgeoisie parents (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place), who embrace propriety as a religion. At a zoo, Place curtly informs the boy who will grow up to be Robbins, “Your adopted father and I whisked you away from a life that most certainly would have been one of degradation and alcoholism. Your part of the bargain is to never wallow in the filth of instinct. Any dumb animal can do that.”
Robbins grows up to be pathologically repressed, an uptight scientist committed to never wallowing in the filth of instinct. He aspires to teach table etiquette to mice under the logic that if he can teach laboratory animals manners, then he can teach humans manners, and make the world a better, more civil place in the process. In the ultimate case of opposites attracting, Robbins ends up with Patricia Arquette, a woman with a freakish genetic abnormality that renders her as hairy as an ape. After writhing in shame as a girl, then eking out a sad living as “Queen Kong” in a third-rate carnival—there’s a heartbreaking shot of her romping around a papier-mâché Empire State Building, battling a little person in a toy plane as children look on glumly—she retreats to the wilderness and writes the bestselling manifesto Fuck Humanity.
While exploring the wilderness one day, Arquette and Robbins stumble upon Ifans living naked and free as a wild animal. Ifans begins masturbating furiously when Arquette corners him, and the sequence sets up the film’s most dominant motifs. Ifans tries hard to fit into human society, but the urge to masturbate furiously and fuck every woman he sees proves difficult to resist, so stumbling attempts at domestication co-exist uncomfortably with constant simian masturbation and feral humping.
An insatiable hunger for sex—and, to a much lesser extent, human companionship—drives Arquette to abandon her beloved woods and submit to extensive electrolysis at the ripe old age of 30, just as a fierce, primal hunger for sex drives Ifans to submit to Robbins’ efforts to transform him into a proper gentleman. For Robbins, it isn’t enough for Ifans to talk; no, he must speak the Queen’s English with impeccable diction, and be able to converse eloquently about the great thinkers of our time. Late in the film, after Ifans has reverted back to his natural state, Robbins bitterly grouses to his former protégé, “We discussed Wittgenstein, for Chrissakes, not that you ever had anything enlightening to say about the subject!” A man who cannot say anything edifying about Wittgenstein might as well still be communicating through agitated screeching and angrily hurled clumps of feces.
Arquette and Ifans learn through painful, firsthand experience in their early 30s what most folks learn as teenagers: We must change something essential about ourselves if we ever hope to get laid. And what is growing up, if not an epic quest to get laid? For Arquette and Ifans, that means giving up their wild, untamed selves and becoming grotesque caricatures of, respectively, a perfect pink homemaker and a distinguished gentleman. For most male teenagers, that means leaving the comforting womb of videogames, Doritos, and cable television, plus bathing every once in a while.
In that respect, Human Nature echoes the story of Adam and Eve; the forbidden fruit of sex drives Arquette and Ifans out of their wild Eden and hurls them into a sad, corrupt world of rules and restrictions, clothing and table manners. Arquette and Ifans each submit to socially mandated burlesques; Arquette gives up her activism, writing, body hair, and independence to become Robbins’ assistant, while Ifans lives a tragic dual life. In public demonstrations engineered by Robbins, Ifans dazzles audiences with his refinement and incredible tale of personal improvement, but in private, Ifans fucks whores and gives in to his most wanton urges.
Robbins, meanwhile, dallies with his former assistant (Otto), a perfumed faux-French tart habitually clad in slinky lingerie, and living in what appears to be a giant jewelry box. Since this is a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, the four main characters each occupy a different corner of hell. They’re all intent on denying their true natures, and Human Nature is a film of infinite sadness. Countless scenes that sound comic on paper—like Arquette shaving the hair off her torso or Robbins haplessly impersonating an ape in a bid to win Arquette back late in the film—play as tragedy. For Kaufman, being human means suffering.
“What is love, anyway?” Robbins postulates from a ghostly white purgatory, late in the film. “From my new vantage point, I realize that love is nothing more than a messy conglomeration of need, desperation, fear of death, and insecurity about penis size. But I’m not judging it. I know how miserable it is to be alive.” It’s perhaps the film’s most trenchant and heartbreaking piece of dialogue. In a rhyming exchange, a doctor played by Peter Dinklage quotes Andre Malraux: “The attempt to force human beings to despise themselves is what I call hell.”
Like Kaufman’s scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and Synecdoche, New York, Human Nature uses a fantastical conceit to explore the fresh hell of existence and our desperate attempts to deny who we are and what we want. But where Malkovich, Spotless, Adaptation, and Synecdoche are grounded in visceral human emotions and feel gloriously, painfully alive, Human Nature feels strangely hermetic. It’s an oddly airless film, populated by archetypes—Nature Boy, Nature Girl, The Uptight Scientist, The Scheming Floozy—rather than people.
Ifans, Robbins, and Arquette breathe incredible melancholy, pain, and confusion into their characters, but they cannot make them human. That is perhaps the tragedy of Human Nature: Despite its title and abundance of brilliant ideas and clever lines, it feels strangely abstract and theoretical. Rewatching Human Nature eight years on, the film’s bone-deep sadness resonates more strongly than its cerebral comedy of manners. It’s a profoundly flawed and strangely affecting film about what Arquette refers to as the “waywardness of humankind” and the sublime agony of being human.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success