“Good. Eve. Ning. Lay. Dees. And. Gen. Tel. Men.”
Human Nature is without a doubt the overlooked film in writer Charlie Kaufman’s body of work. It’s tough to say why, exactly. Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette, and Rhys Ifans lead a cast that includes appearances by a few other well-known faces, so it’s probably not a fault in the casting. Director Michel Gondry did cut his feature-length teeth with Human Nature, so you could chalk it up to a lack of name recognition in that category. But then again, Kaufman’s first produced screenplay was Being John Malkovich, directed by then-unknown Spike Jonze, and that film remains far more popular today than Human Nature.
Whatever the reason, Human Nature is only slightly less inventive than Malkovich and nearly every bit as humorous. Arquette’s Lila is born with a strange defect that causes her to be excessively hairy all over her body, providing further evidence that Charlie Kaufman was nursing a serious obsession with primates during his early screenwriting days. Rhys Ifans is Puff, a man raised in the wilderness by a father who was driven to monkey-dom by the murder of JFK (“Apes don’t assassinate their Presidents!”). Tim Robbins is the conspicuously well-mannered doctor who brings everything together. Sound zany enough? That’s because it’s really Kaufman and Gondry who bring everything together, and they do it remarkably well.
And while zany is the perfect word, it also conjures up cheap flicks with Chris Kattan (who actually was considered for the role of Puff) or Ben Stiller, evokes silly comedies that are funny in their simple gag-by-gag ways but ultimately forgettable. This is the state of modern comedy. Since we’re concerned with humans that look a lot like apes and apes that may or may not be apes at all, we’ll put this in evolutionary terms:
Rung -1: The lowest modern comedies on the evolutionary ladder are surely the occupants of the Genre Parody Genre, which, somehow, became a genre. Long ago pioneers like Spinal Tap have evaporated — now we have Epic Movie, Vampires Suck, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, and a kamillion sequels to Scary Movie. Evolution-wise, these are less akin to an early biped ancestor and more of a corollary to that little wriggling worm the ancestor munched on. Charles Darwin would voluntarily snuff this disgusting creature out of existence.
Rung 0: Cheap knockoff sequels that nobody wanted — not quite as unwatchable as the aforementioned subspecies, but worthy of a ground-floor rating all the same. Son of the Mask and Dumb and Dumberer leap to mind, not that we can remember a single thing about the experience of watching them other than excruciating pain.
Rung 1: Cheap has-been vehicles that amount to sequels that no one wanted — namely Grown-Ups, and anything starring anyone involved in Grown-Ups. These are the Homo erectus to the Homo habilis of the preceding rung: there’s certainly a difference between the two, but from up here on our high horses the vast majority of regular humans just don’t give a f*ck.
All-important Evolutionary Pivot-point: Kangaroo Jack.
Mankind: The vast majority of comedy film, past or present or future, resides here — Homo sapien, the ostensible pinnacle of existence. We think pretty deeply about…you know…stuff. Hey, we spend like two whole hours working per day, like, every day, man. Can’t we just unwind and watch a Will Ferrell movie?
Supermankind: Comedies that are actually truly funny, memorably funny, transcendentally funny. And yes, Kaufman belongs here.
Human Nature is a a true evolved being in that it readily shows the vestigial structures of less-evolved comedies, meaning it’s hilarious if you simply take the jokes as they come. “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do,” asserts Robbins’s super-polite Doctor Nathan. The fling he has with a young French lab assistant — who’s not really French at all — results in the mistress forcing him to choose between her and Puff. It’s just like Sophie’s Choice, she insists, only this is Nathan’s Choice, which is the same thing as that, only it’s this. And Rhys Ifans’s Puff is the most consistently hilarious, expounding on his true home among primates with his newfound human vocabulary: “I’m an ape, mother — and apes don’t drop lines.”
But, like those comedies belonging to the Übermensch Rung, Human Nature is funniest in the mere ideas it presents, in the wickedly twisted themes that run beneath the spoken gags. Puff’s entire motivation for becoming “human” is that he plays witness to Nathan’s most carnal, animalistic act: going to Pleasure Town with his French assistant on the tiled floor of the lab. Puff “wants some of that”, so of course massaging out his carnal instincts in favor of prim and proper decorum is his route. This humor doesn’t need words to be funny, and it doesn’t always hit the mark as intended. Granted, Being John Malkovich is ultimately more inventive and exciting when it comes to seeing a bonkers premise through to the end; but Kaufman’s sophomore effort is endlessly inventive in a slightly different way, still deserving of far greater recognition than it has received to date.
Some of the funniest parts of Human Nature are the intercut mice-at-dinner gags, taking place in a miniature glassed-in dining room in Nathan’s lab. The mice enter the dining room, one pushes the other’s seat in, and they both sit. Nathan prompts the mechanical arm to lift and reveal two leafy green salads, and he’s pleased when the mice choose the proper fork (the small one on the outside) before politely tucking in. The mice don’t speak, but if they did they sure as hell wouldn’t do it with food in their mouths.