It's true, Nicole Kidman can do anything. Casting this glamorous star as the illiterate cleaning woman of "The Human Stain," based on Philip Roth's novel, sounded like one of Hollywood's worst ideas in ages.
But then, who would have expected her to score so marvelously as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours" last year? I can't say she's an ideal choice for Robert Benton's new film, but she is always credible, and she tunes her performance perfectly to the movie's overall tone.
Looking beyond Kidman, that overall tone is the movie's main problem. While it's hard to summarize the story without giving away the secret at its core, I'll do my best. The main character is Coleman Silk, a college professor who quits his job after fighting a preposterous charge of racism. Eager to air his side of the story, he asks author Nathan Zuckerman - a surrogate for Roth in several of Roth's novels - to write a book about it. The two become friends, and soon Zuckerman is intimate with strange details of Silk's life, including his affair with the cleaning woman.
"The Human Stain" isn't one of Mr. Roth's finest books, but it forcefully projects his passionate concern with American issues of ethnicity, the nature of personality, and how past experiences - our own and those of our forebears - shape our present lives. It's also packed with characters who rant and rave their ideas with utter conviction, leading readers through a maze of contradictory, even paradoxical viewpoints that demonstrate the daunting complexity of even the most modest human affairs.
Little of which you'll find in Mr. Benton's movie. As adapted for the screen by Nicholas Meyer, it's been simplified in standard Hollywood style. Part of Roth's story is there, with significant changes - the cleaning woman isn't illiterate, for example. What's completely missing is Roth's voice.
Anthony Hopkins does well as the professor, although his looks aren't right for the part. Ed Harris is excellent as a crazy ex-husband, and Gary Sinise makes a reasonably convincing Zuckerman. Still, the movie is a disappointment - not a stain on Benton's career as a serious and literate director, but only half the powerful drama it might have been.
• Rated R; contains sex, vulgarity, and violence.