Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Now that the Hong Kong Kavaliers aren't touring, I wondered what Perfect Tommy was up to. Lo and behold, he drops us this line from the City by the Bay with a look at Michel Gondry's debut feature, working from a Charlie Kaufman script. Am I interested? Oh, yes... oh, yes, I am... and it's an excellent review, even if the word is kinda scary. I hope this one ends up working...
HUMAN NATURE test-screened last night at San Francisco’s Metreon. This is the latest Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) script to come out of production, and is the debut feature from veteran video director Michel Gondry (Bjork, Beck, Fatboy Slim, etc.). Spike Jonze was a producer.
I believe that I spotted Jonze and Kaufman in the lobby, scoping out the audience and schmoozing with the survey geeks. After the standard surveys at the conclusion of the screening, about 15 audience members (alas, yours truly not among them) were invited for a focus group discussion. The presenters announced that this was one of the first public screenings, so (hopefully) they’ll be performing some edits on this sucker before it goes into general release. They never made the “don’t post anything about this on the Internet” announcement, so perhaps they’re giving in to the inevitable.
The film stars Tim Robbins as Nathan (a behavioral psychologist who is teaching mice table manners), Patricia Arquette as his girlfriend (a “nature writer” and on-again/off-again feminist with an ape-like pelt), Miranda Otto as his scheming lab assistant, and Rhys Ifans as a man raised in the wild to believe himself an ape.
The story, such as it is, involves the capture and “education” of the putative ape-man by Nathan, and the attendant romantic quadrangle once everyone’s sexual proclivities become properly cross-wired.
Unfortunately, all of Kaufman’s faults evidenced in Malkovich (the disregard for structure, the calculated offhand misogyny, the seventh-grade-smutty surrealism) not only obscure the story (we open with several different flashback narratives, all at cross-purposes and none convincing or involving) but bog down the humor. If you look at any successful “anarchic” comedy (Raising Arizona, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Flirting With Disaster), you’ll find carefully written and edited sequences that build and crescendo. You’ll also find relationships between the characters that, while farcical and overdrawn, at least explain character motivation and behavior from scene to scene.
Not so here.
The structure is even more of an episodic mess than Malkovich; many of the scenes play like sketch humor; and the relationships between the characters seem to have been pared to the bond for this cut. (The relationship between Robbins and Arquette seems especially underdeveloped and confounding – she acts bizarrely irate at one moment, and inexplicably compliant the next.)
The audience response was tepid-to-warm. Several decent laugh lines got the crowd into it, and there were several calculated gasp-inducing scenes that worked.
These “schockers,” however, were on the level of a second-rate Farrelly Bros. Production – “My goodness, he’s jerking off!” “My goodness, she kissed a dwarf!” “My goodness, Patricia Arquette’s breasts are hairy!”
Gondry’s direction was flat. The visuals were interesting only in spots – and those spots were direct rips from his own music videos. He seems to have exhausted his visual vocabulary after a single feature.
The CGI mice were wildly uneven. While the scenes of the mice in cages were really well executed (I really BELIEVED that they were using tiny utensils to eat salad from plates!), the scenes of the mice in “the wild” were clumsy and flat – the mice seemed to be on a loop. Perhaps this is something that will be fixed in postproduction.
The editing, from a technical standpoint, was competent – the visuals flowed from one scene to another, eyelines were matched, etc. Continuity was only a problem in Tim Robbins’ “afterlife” narration scenes – the bullet wound in his forehead kept wandering from left to center to right from shot to shot.
From a strategic standpoint, the editing was a farce. Gondry is no storyteller, and Kaufman’s half-baked flashback/narration structure served only to confuse things from the outset. We never got a sense of who or what the movie was “about.” I’m not saying we necessarily had to have a Bruckheimer “high concept” here, or a clearly identified hero and villain, but in the absence of stronger jokes and gags, there needs to be a stronger storyline.
The acting was flat as well. Tim Robbins was in his smug-comedic mode (Clooneyesque head-tilting and -bobbing accompanied by weaselly lip-acrobatics around his line readings) that a more experienced director might have quashed. Rhys Ifans was a peculiar casting choice (if a man were raised as an ape in the wild, wouldn’t he be all Clint-Eastwood-stringy-and-scrawny, instead of Hugh-Grant-flabby-and-pasty?); Patricia Arquette was … well, Patricia Arquette (whiny/“needy” alternating with seductive/angry); Miranda Otto seemed to have wandered in from a suppressed Pink Panther sequel; Rosie Perez seemed lost and slightly embarrassed. Only Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place, as “Nathan’s” parents, seemed to realize they were in a comedy and supposed to be “funny.” The tone chirped right up whenever they were on screen.
This will no doubt be marketed as “a Charlie Kaufman film,” or “from the writer of Being John Malkovich.” The risk they run with this approach is that more discerning viewers may come away feeling that it was just a rehash of elements from Malkovich, and a general audience will have a hard time following the story and will be unwilling to follow Kaufman’s acerbic line of attack on social mores.
On the whole, an uninspiring experience. It felt like a “very special episode” of “Ally McBeal” directed by the Farrelly Bros. – cheap kaka-peepee-handjob-midget gags in a universe where all interpersonal relationships are defined by adolescent sexual jealousies.
If they ditch the flashback structure, replace some of the missing “relationship development” scenes, and come up with a better final payoff ending (my suggestion: Miranda Otto’s character drops the fake accent, and Rhys Ifans gleefully exclaims “They bought it!; thereby implying that his whole ape-man story was a hoax), they might have more of a crowd-pleaser. The edit I saw last night seemed designed to play up the gags and the jolts at the expense of story, logic, and character development. Time to go back to the Avid and reinsert some of the “fat,” gentlemen.
The rest of the Hong Kong Kavaliers call me... PERFECT TOMMY.