'Human Nature' is a snappy, quirky tale

I was eager to see "Human Nature," because human nature is something movies don't exactly shower us with in this age of snazzy FX and eye-spinning camera work.

Then again, you can't tell a movie by its title, (the current "Big Trouble" notwithstanding).

"Human Nature" is less interested in its subject than about a long list of other things: table manners, naked bodies, electrolysis, and laboratory mice, to name just a few.

It's also an anthology of memories from other films, reminding me – intentionally or not – of everything from "The Wild Child" and "A Clockwork Orange" to "Young Frankenstein" and, most important, "Mon Oncle d'Amerique," the neglected 1980 masterpiece by Alain Resnais that could have inspired this whole picture.

In short, "Human Nature" sees human nature not as you'd expect a philosopher or an anthropologist to see it, but as you'd expect from, say, a French music-video director or a whiz-kid indie screenwriter.

And guess what? The picture was made by Michel Gondry, a French music-video director, and Charlie Kaufman, who penned the spirited "Being John Malkovich" two years ago. They're positively teeming with quirky ideas, but in this project they can't muster any insight or perceptiveness.

They'd probably answer that charge by saying the film should be judged as a whimsical fantasy, nothing more. They'd have a point if they hadn't called it "Human Nature," a title that doesn't overflow with modesty. As it stands, the movie has entertaining moments but doesn't have the surrealistic wallop its makers were clearly aiming for.

Tim Robbins plays Nathan, a mild-mannered scientist with an ambitious mission. Traumatized as a child by his parents' obsession with good manners, he's determined to improve our planet by bringing etiquette to the animal kingdom – seating mice at a dinner table, for instance, and jolting them with electric shocks if they choose the wrong salad fork.

Into his life comes another victim of an unhappy past. Her name is Lila, and she'd be considered beautiful if she hadn't acquired a coat of body hair as a teenager. She and Nathan fall in love, but their romance is complicated by the story's other characters.

One is Nathan's fetching French assistant, who hopes to snare him with amour. Another is Puff, a recently discovered ape-man who could become an ordinary guy if Nathan's behavior-changing techniques can zap him into acting like one.

You don't run across plot elements like these every day, and "Human Nature" deserves a few points for audacity. This comes mostly from Kaufman's screenplay, which cites Picasso's art, Wittgenstein's philosophy, Janis Joplin's music, and US Senate hearings as if they weren't separate categories but aspects of a single postmodern culture flow – which, of course, they are in our contemporary world.

Kaufman doesn't approach the brilliance of "Being John Malkovich" here, but he confirms his promise as a writer with very imaginative notions.

The cast is also noteworthy. Robbins brings his usual charm to the semi-mad scientist, and Patricia Arquette makes a credible Lila despite the hairy pelt that drapes her half the time. Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place make the most of their brief appearances as Nathan's parents, and Rosie Perez does the same as a hair-removal expert who gives Lila advice while eliminating follicles from her epidermis. Rhys Ifans and Mirando Otto are fine as the ape-man and the mistress, respectively.

The movie's problems come from Gondry's directing, which betrays his roots in music video and TV commercials. He constantly goes for quick effects, rarely for sustained atmosphere or deep-reaching emotion.

Every single frame of this film is as cute, slick, and snappy as the adorable little mice who end the movie with a gag right out of "Babe: Pig in the City."

And that's awfully tiring after a while.

• Rated R; contains comic violence, vulgar language, and much nudity.

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