A jolly little parable about civilization vs. the untamed state, “Human Nature” has its way with both aspects of the human animal, with intermittently amusing but light effect. Charlie Kaufman’s clever screenplay bears many traces of the same brand of originality and eccentric imagination that graced his work on “Being John Malkovich,” although even at an hour-and-a-half the conceit is stretched almost too thin for audience sustenance. Commercials and musicvid wiz Michel Gondry keeps the action agreeably afloat most of the time in his first feature, which looks to do moderate biz stateside in skedded November release by Fine Line.
While mainly riffing on the “Wild Child” theme of the implications of taking a man raised in the wild and indoctrinating him with language, learning and etiquette, pic inventively parallels this with the journey of a woman whose shocking adolescent growth of body hair sends her fleeing to live with the animals before returning to co-exist with humans. Much of the humor stems from spotlighting the sex drive as the base of almost everything, and in defining civilization’s primary role as trying to control it. It’s a theme almost too big, serious and complex for the one-dimensional slapstick with which the film treats it, but it’s still good for a few laughs.
Separate mini-autobiographies narrated by the leading characters set up the dynamics that lead to the present, in which Lila (Patricia Arquette) is in prison for murder, Puff (Rhys Ifans) is testifying at a congressional hearing and Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) occupies a white-room afterlife with a bullet hole in his forehead. How they all ended up where they are is duly explained at the end.
As Lila recalls, she was 12 when hair started growing all over her body. After a stint as Queen Kong in a sideshow, she went native in the forest, only to become famous as a pro-nature, anti-human best-selling author. At 30, however, incurable horniness drives her back to the city and into the salon of electrolysis expert Louise (Rosie Perez), who sets her up with 35-year-old virgin Nathan, a scientist devoted to teaching table manners to mice in exhaustive lab experiments.
Thrilled to find a man who won’t hold any telltale hirsuteness against her, Lila is in the midst of introducing Nathan to the joys of nature when they stumble across a feral man (Ifans) in a forest. Raised by a father who literally went ape, the fellow who’s eventually named Puff is immediately placed in a plastic see-through cage in Nathan’s lab, where the scientist molds him roughly in his own image to the stage where he can present him to the public, with the hope that fame and fortune will be part of the bargain.
Aside from teaching, Nathan and his French-accented assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) must deal with curbing Puff’s unrestrained sexual appetite. Whenever Puff gets near a woman, he either tries to hump her or masturbates, so he’s outfitted with an electric collar through which he gets heavy jolts every time he becomes aroused. This has the desired short-term effect, but can scarcely eradicate the man’s most basic urge.
This whole process gives Lila serious misgivings, and she believes she’s sold her “natural” soul for counterfeit domestic happiness with Nathan. Her imagined bliss isn’t destined to last anyway, since Nathan finally catches her shaving her body hair at just the time that he finally caves in to the incessant flirtations of Gabrielle.
Nathan’s efforts to turn Puff into an aesthete finally pay dividends, and as he sets his charge “free” into the world, he gives him a memorable cardinal rule of civilization: “When in doubt, don’t do what you really want to do.” Of course, Puff seeks relief from his condition at once, and eventually tries to recapture paradise lost with Lila, who curiously keeps buzzing Puff’s electrified collar even as she’s giving in to him sexually.
Tale has a few more twists after that, but while the approach remains pranky and the mood buoyant, the idea begins feeling played out before the finish line is in sight. Partly it’s because the theme of civilization existing to repress sexuality, while comically exploitable for a while, has so many more angles than can ever be raised here.
Nor do the characters, even in a simple way that would befit a comedy, really come to grips with their behavior. Nathan is unreflectively single-minded in his dedication to his job, while Lila, in her ambivalence, becomes too recessive a character when she’s in a unique position to be forthright on both sides of the argument.
Kaufman and Gondry still come up with some playful insights and sharp laughs based on the absurdity of the characters’ stances and behavior, and pic has a pleasingly clean, well-composed look. With prolonged nudity involved for both Arquette and Ifans as they romp through the woods and climb on trees, performers are game, and the relatively small-scale special effects, many involving animals, are charming.