The Human Stain

Like Woody Allen, Philip Roth seems to be getting crankier with age. But where bitterness and hostility have enervated Allen, they've invigorated Roth, particularly with his 2000 novel The Human Stain, a flawed masterpiece that's at once autumnal and deeply angry. Roth's jeremiad against the excesses of identity politics comes to the screen in Robert Benton's The Human Stain, a handsomely mounted, well-acted adaptation that's still never quite as affecting or tragic as it should be. In an audacious bit of casting, noted white gentile Anthony Hopkins stars as a light-skinned black academic passing as a Jewish man whose distinguished career comes to a halt over a misconstrued comment made during one of his classes. Fueled largely by bitterness and Viagra, the recently widowed Hopkins rediscovers his capacity for joy when he begins an affair with Nicole Kidman, an essentially illiterate janitor with no tolerance for the comforting self-delusions of the middle and upper class. In some respects, Kidman's character is a male fantasy: She's an attractive, available woman who seeks sex without commitment or emotional entanglement. Kidman plays her, however, as an unsparing force of nature, a strong-willed survivor incapable of anything but the harshest honesty. Hopkins' chief antagonist writes him an anonymous note accusing him of crassly exploiting Kidman, but the actress' electric performance alone makes their relationship a pairing of formidable equals. It's a fiery, indelible turn in a film that's nevertheless a little too remote and polished for its own good. Hopkins never seems convincing, either as a light-skinned African-American or as a man passing for a Jew, but he embarrasses himself only when uttering the word "chutzpah" as if saying it for the very first time. For all the intelligence and melancholy Hopkins brings to the role, he never inhabits it the way Kidman does. Roth's novel was at heart a howl of rage against a corrupt, hypocritical, judgmental world, but Benton's austere adaptation–stunningly shot by the late Jean-Yves Escoffier–speaks largely in muted tones.

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