Wending through the summaries of this year's forthcoming blockbusters -- dudes fight evil; chicks keep yanking up their trendy hip-huggers while fighting evil -- it's immediately refreshing to note a movie about furry freaks and saucy geeks whose primary goal is just to, you know, do it. In Human Nature, written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and directed by feature neophyte Michel Gondry, the wild thang is key to all things. For a while the screwy comedy toes a rather obvious line between Miss Manners and Robert Bly, but then, to its credit, it leaps around willy-nilly, letting lust run its beastly course. Bravo, that.
Essentially, as in the Spike Jonze-directed and more cerebral Malkovich, we're looking at a fervid love square. Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) is a pretty lady with severe hirsutism, a source of shame and near-suicide until she decides to celebrate her fuzzy booty and go live, as it were, "in nature." (This may be symbolic of thousands of women chucking their razors and migrating to the Bay Area. Or maybe it isn't.) Fortune smiles on Lila as a nature writer -- one of her popular tomes is subtly entitled Fuck Humanity -- but soon she discovers in herself a hunger for man love and begrudgingly returns to man's world.
Shacking up with an excessively meticulous behavioral scientist named Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), Lila represses her wild ways, practicing surreptitious full-body shaving and honoring Nathan's mania about using the correct fork. Further compromises are inevitable, however, as an innocent sylvan hike leads the couple to a naked wildman (Rhys Ifans) who appears to be the bastard spawn of Dr. Zaius and/or Tom Petty. When the apelike fellow is whisked back to Nathan's lab for carefully regimented research and training, he's dubbed "Puff" by Nathan's frisky French assistant, Gabrielle (Miranda Otto). Again echoing Malkovich, Puff's trajectory from antisocial fustiness to quasi-refinement parallels that of John Cusack's woolly puppeteer. What ensues is a lot of sneaky, scamming love action at cross purposes, designed to reveal the flimsiness of terms like "natural" and "innocent."
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Kaufman -- who is to screenwriting what Andy Kaufman was to performance art: an accomplished piss-taker -- has fashioned this story as something of a nonlinear mystery (smartly cut by editor Russell Icke). Thus we get outcomes well before explanations, affording the plot a heady momentum. We know early on, for instance, that Puff is testifying before the Supreme Court and that Nathan has been shot in the head (alas, a fate perhaps better suited to Robbins's Bill Gates caricature in AntiTrust). Since we're frequently a step ahead of the characters, the writer uses the breathing room to throw down a wide variety of outlandish tics, ranging in tone from cuddly (fantasies of nursing babies) to cruel (shock collars). What could have been simply a nebbish's reply to Darwin is screwed up into a grand farce of desire and deceit.
The clever script would be for naught, however, if Gondry or his cast didn't instill each implausibility with humanity and charm. As Puff, Ifans is literally freaking hilarious, smeared with feces one minute and speaking the Queen's English the next. (His voracious assaults on an image of female buttocks are a show-stealer.) The character is a unique invention, since he claims to have been raised by an ape, but was in fact raised by an insane father who believed himself an ape. His musky aura (and seedy secret life) play wonderfully against Arquette's fractured nymph, as she struggles to balance her delusions and lusts with Robbins's threadbare romantic idealism. Once Otto's wanton advances are mixed into the mess, it's anybody's game, and happily so.
Known for his music videos for Björk (including, probably not coincidentally, "Human Behavior"), Gondry greets the material with a blithe and generous playfulness, almost a storybook vibe. Everything from Puff's lucite cell to Gabrielle's boudoir is presented dreamily, slightly beyond reality. This effect carries over to the office of Lila's electrologist and confidante, Louise (Rosie Perez), and to the dining room of Nathan's obscenely fastidious parents (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place). Since Kaufman's dialogue is so pleasingly absurd ("I'm sorry," says Nathan, eyeing his parents' newly adopted son, "could somebody please tell me who this boy is?"), Gondry gets to relax and revel in the visual details. Featuring mice practicing table manners and monkey men in smoking jackets, the movie would be nearly as amusing in total silence.
Although there are whiffs of social philosophy throughout it, Human Nature doesn't seem terribly concerned with achieving any grand assessment of civilization versus wildness (it practically writes off the whole issue). Rather, Kaufman and Gondry bait us with constant zaniness, then sneak up on us with romantic melancholy, even crushing pathos. You'll laugh a lot, but not without a sense of animal desperation.