Human Nature, from wildly inventive screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is the Kinks’ Ape Man come to life.
A woman (Patricia Arquette) suffering from hirsutism (i.e., she’s hairy like an ape) flees society to live in the wild. Meanwhile, separately, a man who thinks he’s an ape also flees society to live in the wild, taking his newborn son with him, whom he proceeds to raise as an ape.
The woman eventually decides to return to the human world, and takes up with a repressed scientist (Tim Robbins). The son (Rhys Ifans) of the insane guy who thought he was an ape grows up, and is captured and placed under the care of the scientist, who decides he will attempt to civilize him.
For me, the gold standard for Kaufman movies is the wonderfully inventive Adaptation. Human Nature is not on that level.
They’re both oddball stories, to put it mildly, but beyond that Human Nature has far too little of what made me a fan of Adaptation.
This movie plays out even more as a comedy than Adaptation, and it does have a few pretty good laughs. The mice being taught table manners is probably the best. Some of the comic scenes with the ape man adjusting poorly to civilization are decent, with the best line being when they are trying to help him understand how to behave properly and they tell him “Remember, when in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.” But even purely on the level of humor I probably laughed at least as much at Adaptation.
Human Nature is at least as weird in its subject matter, but nowhere near as fascinatingly complex in its narrative structure as Adaptation. It’s told in flashbacks, but that’s nothing compared to the narrative Escher drawing this is Adaptation.
In Adaptation, Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman himself is a terrific character, and Nicolas Cage as Kaufman’s double is an even more likable, memorable character. No one in this movie rises to that level.
But most importantly, Adaptation‘s ultimate message was a lovely reminder to only take responsibility for what you do and feel, and to not let how other people think of you and treat you knock you off course of being the best person you can be. When asked why he isn’t upset by a girl insulting and betraying him, Kaufman’s double explains that he only owns his love for her, that her feelings for him are out of his control and thus not something he can feel bad about. Trite, some will say, but a message that spoke to me.
Human Nature‘s message, such as it is, apparently is that there’s something unhealthy in the way civilization represses what would otherwise be our natural drives, especially for sex, and as a result we do all kinds of screwy things to stop ourselves from acting on those drives and/or alter the way we act on them, especially sex.
Which just isn’t as meaningful to me. Plus it’s not clear it’s even intended all that seriously by the filmmakers. I think Kaufman meant what he said in Adaptation; here I think it’s just a convenient, simplistic theme to hang gags on.
I suppose the ideas are worth thinking about; maybe I’m not giving the movie its due. But in my estimation, where Adaptation is an extra base hit, Human Nature is-being generous-an infield single.