- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

"Human Nature," which has the same screenwriter as "Being John Malkovich," is a goodie of the utterly nutty kind.

Charlie Kaufman wrote both screenplays. The brilliantly preposterous "Malkovich" was directed by Spike Jonze. Michel Gondry, a droll and promising French transplant, directs "Human Nature."

Once again, four principal characters are destined to get shuffled and muddled as consorts. The narration is distributed among a trio. One reports from the afterlife, which looks like a severely refrigerated environment.

The story proper begins with the account of Lila, portrayed by Patricia Arquette. Plagued by a hormonal imbalance that produces an overgrowth of body hair, Lila becomes a fugitive in her teens. Following a field mouse, perhaps in the absence of Alice's rabbit, she flees into the forest and lives as a child of nature.

Time scampers and Lila re-emerges in young womanhood, gnawed by mating instincts that have remained unfulfilled. She writes a provocative best seller about her experiences.

Upon the advice of a kindly electrologist (a small but savory role for Rosie Perez), Lila forms a hopeful misalliance with an overcivilized opposite. This is Tim Robbins as behavioral researcher Nathan Bronfman, professionally absorbed in teaching table manners to lab mice. A stern taskmaster, Nathan sends one of his slow learners to bed without dinner when it uses the wrong fork.

Nathan grew up with fanatically genteel parents, portrayed by Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster. Mother has impressed the following lesson upon him: "Never wallow in the filth of instinct."

Nathan means it when he confides, "I blame my parents." He has a fetching assistant named Gabrielle, who claims to be French and is played very wittily by Australian actress Miranda Otto. Intensely jealous of Lila, Gabrielle does her utmost to break up the romance.

Another complication enters the lab: Ryan Ifans as a "wild child" discovered by Lila and Nathan during a forest stroll. Trying to escape, the creature falls from the treetops and ends up a Bronfman specimen, called Puff Bronfman.

Abandoned by a long-gone father who despised civilization, Puff is installed in a Fiberglas cage and subjected to conditioned reflex experiments, designed to transform him into a paragon of acquired gentlemanly traits.

Unfortunately, his animal lust is never quite subdued. It fixes on Lila when he's first allowed out of the cage. It fixes on a waitress when Lila and Nathan first take him out to dine. It even fixes on slides of women when Nathan projects them onto a screen in the lab.

Puff perseveres and smartens up. At the same time, he arouses urges in both Lila and Gabrielle, becoming a kind of double Oedipal thorn in Nathan's side.

Mr. Robbins draws the short personality straw as Nathan, but this thankless role still becomes him, especially when he's muttering "No biggie." Arguably, "Human Nature" isn't a biggie either, but it's definitely humorous.


***

TITLE: "Human Nature"

RATING: R (Systematic sexual candor and satire; occasional profanity and nudity; interludes of simulated intercourse; fleeting violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Michel Gondry.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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