CAPSULE: HUMAN NATURE (2001)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Miranda Otto

PLOT: A scientist and a woman cursed with hirsuitism discover a feral man living in the woods and train him to live in civilized society.

Still from Human Nature (2001)

COMMENTS: Human Nature feels a bit like—and was certainly interpreted by contemporaneous critics as—an unpublished script that was dusted off and polished up to capitalize on the unexpected success of Being John Malkovich (1999). In fact, the script had originally been optioned way back in 1996, when it was circulating together with Malkovich, although it’s not clear which screenplay Kaufman completed first. After his 1999 hit, passed on directing Human Nature; he served as a producer instead, and recommended the already-established music video/commercial director Michel Gondry for the job.

That partnership was also destined to bear fruit in the future, but the team did not immediately meet with success. Human Nature didn’t live up to its immediate predecessor in either the originality of its premise or in its bizarre humor; critics who loved the first movie were generally disappointed, while those who never bought in to Kaufman in the first place relished the opportunity to proclaim that the newly crowned Emperor had scanty clothing. Twenty years later, seen outside of Malkovich‘s immediate shadow, Human Nature looks much better: smart, easy to watch, and wispily Freudian in its depiction of sexual conflict between the superego and id.

Human Nature begins by divulging its three main characters’ eventual fates: Lila is imprisoned, Puff is testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, and Nathan has a conspicuous hole in his head. Flashbacks explain how we got here: Lila, cursed with simian body hair, becomes a famous nature writer but decides she needs a man and so undergoes extensive electrolysis before being introduced to Nathan, an inhibited prude of a psychologist who’s work involves using electrical shocks to train lab rats to use the correct salad fork. They form a desperate, co-dependent relationship until discovering a feral man (later dubbed “Puff”) in the woods, whom Nathan decides would make an even better test subject for his behavioral modification studies than the mice—unlike rodents, he can train the ape man to read “Moby Dick” and discuss Wittgenstein, and to refrain from humping every woman he comes across. Predictably, things go awry, with everything further confused when various competing romantic axes and rivalries start to develop between this threesome and Nathan’s assistant, Gabrielle.

Quirky highlights include an incongruous, Disneyesque strolling-through-nature song where Lila embraces her hairiness (“my new friends, these split-ends…”); early whimsical “Gondryeqsque” sequences of white mice seated at a dinner table (done with a combination of puppetry, stop-motion, and trained animals); and Gabrielle’s contextually inexplicable accent. These bits combine with the oddness of the comic scenario and the movie’s arch approach to sexual repression to create an intelligent and off-key chamber piece effectively poking fun at our civilized foibles (“apes don’t assassinate their Presidents, gentlemen!”), while falling well short of the existential weirdness of Kaufman’s debut. By conventional Hollywood standards, Human Nature is fairly odd; by Gondry/Kaufman standards, it’s an attempt at a completely mainstream movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Written by Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), this superficially surreal film is in fact a surprisingly straightforward fable… overall the film feels forced and awkward, as though it’s trying too hard to be weird, culty and profound..”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by Nick Gatsby, who said it was “perfect for this list. I’m deathly surprised it’s not on here already.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch Human Nature

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