Don't go see Human Nature in the art house. Stay away, if you can, from the like minds and the cineastes and the smell of Central American coffee. The place to see a film as fluidly daft, as limpidly out-there as this is at the mall, where you can slide from the theater's darkness into a light that shelves upward through golden pleasure domes and plunges down escalators into caves of ice. You can gaze in woozy alarm at busy customers and fierce, iconic salespersons. You can trip across the moats and the jeweled yards, hearing the perfumed hiss of high-end retail. You can behave, in short, like a stoned 16-year-old until Human Nature wears off (it takes about 25 minutes). I call it getting your money's worth.
It's safe, but only just, to say that Human Nature is a comedy -- an extended riff, really; a balloon-cheeked trumpet run on the themes of civilization and its discontents. Let's call it a sex comedy. Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a beautiful naturalist and writer -- Fuck Humanity is one of her bestsellers -- whose apelike body hair has isolated her from mankind. Nathan (Tim Robbins) is a white-coated researcher with a tiny penis and a cruel scheme for teaching table manners to white mice: When they are presented with little plates of salad and their pink hands reach for the wrong miniature fork, they are zapped with electricity. Lila needs a man and reluctantly enters the world to find one. Lila and Nathan are introduced and find togetherness, although she, gleamingly electrolyzed, manages to keep her hair problem from him; he in turn manages to restrain his obsession with the proper placement of forks.
Then, on a hike through the woods, they meet Puff (Rhys Ifans, who played Hugh Grant's roommate in Notting Hill). Puff is human, but he was raised in the wild by a man who thought both he and Puff were apes. He has no language, no manners, no clothes; he is pure. At the vision of Puff masturbating heedlessly in a treetop, Nathan's eyes light up: The perfect lab rat! He drags Puff out of nature and seals him in a glass room, where the naked simianoid crouches sadly as a piped-in female voice recites "useful" phrases such as "My apologies, madam; it shan't happen again" and "I'll have a baked potato with that."
The education of Puff becomes Nathan's consuming project, but Lila is stirred by a strange pity for the wordless, bewildered half-man behind the glass. "I'd better turn in; I have an early start tomorrow." "My compliments to the chef." The mad litany of graciousness reels on. Civilization is bankrupt! Lila's monkey follicles tingle in kinship. With clinical strictness, Puff is trained up to a Pygmalion-like semblance of manhood (he starts wearing a tuxedo), even as Lila's genteel and hairless world starts to come apart. Nathan, meanwhile, is succumbing to the charms of his breathy faux-French lab assistant Gabrielle.
And so on. Human Nature is, self-evidently, nonsense. Not chaos -- there is organization here, and symmetry -- but nonsense: prismatic, near-depthless nonsense. Written by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote Being John Malkovich, Human Nature is not about culture and repression any more than Being John Malkovich was about celebrity and identity. (That film, if you remember, centered around the discovery of a dirt-filled tunnel that led directly into John Malkovich's brain. For 15 minutes, you saw everything through his eyes before being dumped out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.) Both films do their thinking without seriousness. The intellect is tickled, flattered even, but this kind of art is not conceived in a cold passion of ideas. It more likely arises as a shimmering by-product on the back end of some minor and probably physical derangement -- a dodgy tuna sandwich, say, or a feverish mid-morning snooze. I'm speculating, of course (perhaps Charlie Kaufman doesn't like tuna sandwiches); but the point is that there is nothing necessary about this stuff. Nothing ordains it. It simply generates itself, with bacterial prodigality, out of whatever material is at hand. Profligacy, superfluity, the generosity of the imagination. Kaufman's scripts are about nothing but their own freakish contrivance, their own set of laws and the faithfulness with which they are observed: left turn after left turn after left turn, and never the same place twice.
The occasional repeal of sanity can be a great relief. Being John Malkovich -- like a pill, like a dose -- passed quite cleanly through the system, and part of its residue was a question: "How did that happen?" The movie seemed to have slipped Hollywood's fetters -- the focus groups, the rewrites by committee, the workaday inhibitions -- like a dream. Such earnest silliness! It had the feel of a dream: insolent, particular, and oddly gnostic. One imagined it shot on an island somewhere or in an underground complex, bankrolled and protected by a semi-secret society of billionaire spiritualists. Think Edward Lear: "Far and few, far and few / Are the lands where the Jumblies live; / Their heads are green, and their hands are blue. . . ."
Watching Human Nature, we understand how much of the achievement of Being John Malkovich belongs to its director, Spike Jonze. Human Nature is directed by Michel Gondry, previously a maker of ads and music videos. Some of the ads, I understand, have done quite well, and the videos -- especially the ones he made with Björk -- are beautiful. But Gondry is jumpier than Jonze, less assured. The first five minutes of Human Nature are a pickle of opposing viewpoints and clashing tenses, smooshed in with the parabolic pursuit of two scuttling white mice by a hungry owl. The movie settles, but without having decided on its structure: Is it a tale told from purgatory by the deceased (murdered, actually) Nathan? Or is it all part of Puff's testimony before Congress (more on this shortly)? Either option seems complicated: Nonsense must never examine itself. In other ways, though, Gondry is just right. His videos for Björk -- particularly for her songs "Human Behavior" and "Isobel" -- are full of artificial forests, paper-thin but magically charged, like the set of a children's play. The "nature" in Human Nature is like this, conceptual and toylike.
"I feel similarly to you about nature," Nathan assures Lila.
"Do you darling?" she responds.
"Of course I do! I love nature! It's my favorite."
And when Lila finds a brief peace in the woods and actually bursts into Björk-ish song -- "I thought God a Creator diabolical. He gave the nod to each one of my follicles" -- Gondry is right at home, fashioning around her a sylvan idyll that sparkles cheerfully with its own fakeness.
He's good on the sex, too. Charlie Kaufman, bless him, is not squeamish. The joke -- however vulgar or obvious -- will get told, and the best laughs in this film are the basest: real belly laughs, black and fundamental. And they are sweetly set up, many of them arising from Puff's bravura performance before Congress. Stringily bearded and possessed of a strange, antic dignity (he has been ape, he has been man, and now he is philosophy on legs), Puff holds his distinguished audience agog. He describes, for example, his sexual awakening: watching wet-eyed through the laboratory glass as Nathan and his lab assistant Gabrielle go at it. "I saw it, gentlemen! I saw the whole sweaty, dirty, beautiful act. And, to use the vernacular" -- virtuosic pause -- "I wanted me some of that!" (Appreciative roar from the congressmen.)
Nathan, in his naïveté, seeks to give Puff dominion over his own genitals. He tries aversion therapy: Puff, wearing his tux, is placed in an electric collar and exposed to a slide show of 1970s-style nudie pics. At the first image -- a teaser shot , no undressing -- he quakes and frets a little but holds his position. "Good, Puff," says Nathan warily. "Excellent." The next slide, however -- the inevitably displayed rear end -- is too much. Zap! goes the electro-collar, and Zap! again as Puff, seething, uncorrectable, charges the screen with his groin a-jiggle. "Pu-uff . . ." cautions Nathan. "Puff!" It's almost mythically resonant, the tuxedo-clad halfling hissing "Ass!" at the naughty picture and cartwheeling backwards as the punitive lightning strikes. In a less drastic experiment, Puff is taken out to a Hooters-style bar called Chesters. Nathan orders a corned beef sandwich. When the T-shirted waitress turns to Puff and leans richly forward, Puff -- distraught, boiling internally -- blubbers, "Corned beef is a good, decent meat!"
Believe it or not (and you don't, which is the point), there are powerful, goofy insights here. Late in the film, Lila springs Puff from the lab and takes him out to the woods, where their mutual attraction is consummated. As they roll moaning in the long grass, she, control box in hand, administers exquisitely timed blasts on his electro-collar. Puff buzzes in ecstasy, and so mankind makes its leap into the fourth dimension of sex, our edge over the animals, the hotspot where freedom and stricture meet: kinkiness.
The acting, incidentally, is seriously good. Patricia Arquette gives the performance of her career as Lila the incipient ape-woman -- her jagged, peculiar rhythm, her transparency and lack of vanity, and even that crooked, defiant incisor tooth of hers seem made for the role. And Rhys Ifans as Puff in all his phases -- Puff rampant and Puff saddened -- will leave you speechless. He is, among other things, a maestro of nudism, from primal Puff's innocent lack of vestments to Pygmalion Puff's epic return to the wild (staged for the media after his speech to Congress). High-chestedly, splay-footedly, he struts out of the city, shedding an article of clothing every few steps, the crowd gasping at the glamour of his pallor, his buttocks snugly jostling as he re-enters the bush. Or a bush, really. From which he emerges as soon as everyone has gone, and climbs into a waiting Renault and . . . but this is all nonsense.