The Human Stain

"Weak"

The Human Stain Review


Miramax makes its initial bid for Oscar gold with The Human Stain, Robert Benton's torpid adaptation of Philip Roth's acclaimed novel about race and sex and lots of other "big" issues such as the price one pays - emotionally, psychologically, professionally - for attempting to flee both the past and one's true self. Yet this lifelessly structured film feels like a puzzle with too many identical parts, each character merely another example of the film's painfully obvious moral lessons. Throw in some ridiculous miscasting and a facile Clinton-Lewinsky scandal backdrop, and what you've got is a film drunk on its own highfalutin melodrama.

Anthony Hopkins is Coleman Silk, a Classics professor at a Massachusetts university, who, because of an alleged racial epithet (he refers to delinquent African-American students as "spooks"), is not only forced into early retirement, but also into unexpected bachelorhood after his wife suddenly drops dead from the news. Coleman is an erudite Jewish man who harbors a great secret about his past, and soon his tortured life has become intertwined with kindred souls. He befriends the reclusive Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a novelist who has retired to a remote cabin after a cancer scare has left him petrified of his own mortality. Soon afterwards, he meets a striking post office janitor named Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), who, because of a former marriage and a terrible accident, fervently shuns the outside world. Coleman and Faunia strike up a May-December romance, much to the chagrin of both Faunia's loco ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) and a community whose fascination with Clinton's sexual indiscretions hints at an illogical obsession with political correctness.

A contemporary retread of racial issues tackled far more eloquently by Douglas Sirk's 1959 Imitation of Life, Benton's The Human Stain alternates between the past and the present to show how Coleman's supposedly liberating decision as a young man (he's played by newcomer Wentworth Miller in these flashbacks) winds up imprisoning him in a web of deceit. Yet courtesy of Nicholas Meyer's clunky screenplay, Roth's sharp, incisive prose is replaced by ham-fisted dialogue laced with ludicrous double entendres, such as when, in response to Coleman asking his nubile blonde college sweetheart how she likes her coffee, she casually replies that she likes it "black." Later, Kidman's Faunia has a seriously loopy conversation with a crow, musing that the caged bird is "a crow who doesn't know how to be a crow." The symbolic weight of her comment lands, like most of the film's vain attempts at profundity, with a dull thud.

Without revealing the film's anticlimactic revelation, one can safely say that the Welsh-born Hopkins is a perfect fit for the role of Coleman Silk except in the one area that's most vital to the story. Nonetheless, Hopkins turns in a suitably world-weary performance as a beleaguered intellectual desperate to find some measure of inner peace, even if the script continually wants to amplify his tragic character by analogizing his plight to that of Greek mythology's Achilles. Sinise is given the thankless role of being a passive observer (his character provides the film's narration), while Harris uses his limited screen time as the unstable Lester to take a big, healthy bite of the scenery. Kidman, on the other hand, goes for understatement in both gesture and appearance in conveying Faunia's sexual hunger as a mechanism for denial. What she can't do, however, is change the fact that, despite a brunette dye job, some ugly tank tops, and endless chain-smoking, she's still the world's most unbelievably good-looking janitor.

Scant extras on the DVD, with a behind the scenes special and a tribute to cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier.

A little club soda will get that stain out.



The Human Stain

Facts and Figures

Run time: 106 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 29th October 2003

Box Office USA: $5.3M

Budget: $30M

Distributed by: Miramax Films

Production compaines: Miramax Films, Lakeshore Entertainment, Stone Village Pictures, Cinerenta Medienbeteiligungs KG

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 43%
Fresh: 64 Rotten: 86

IMDB: 6.3 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Coleman Silk, as Faunia Farley, as Lester Farley, as Nathan Zuckerman, as Young Coleman Silk, as Steena Paulsson, as Mr. Silk, as Nelson Primus, as Mrs. Silk, Lizan Mitchell as Ernestine, Phyllis Newman as Iris Silk, as Psychologist

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