The Human Stain

by Jennifer Bubriski
Tuesday Jul 20, 2004
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Don’t let the marketing hype on the package fool you. It’s passionate! It’s hot! Not so much. "The Human Stain", adapted from Philip Roth’s award-winning novel is, in a word, depressing.

Anthony Hopkins as doomed protagonist Coleman Silk is depressed because he’s just lost his job as dean of a prestigious college and his wife in the same day (he’s also depressed because of a deep, dark secret from his past). Nicole Kidman, slumming as an unglamorous person again (but without the nose prosthetic this time) as the lowly cleaning lady Faunia Farley with whom Coleman has torrid affair, is depressed because she’s poor and lowly (and – quell coincidence! – because of a deep, dark secret from her past). Ed Harris as her ex-husband is depressed for the same deep, dark secret AND because he’s psychotic. Gary Sinise is an author friend of Coleman’s is depressed because…Oh who cares at this point? It’s just all TOO depressing all in one movie.

Basically, the entire movie is spent knowing, thanks to the opening scene, that Hopkins and Kidman’s characters die in a car crash and watching Hopkins’ Coleman ruin his life. Prisoner of a past decision that he made to escape his race, Coleman seems to spend the movie paying for it. Plus the audience gets to watch the May-December romance between Coleman and Faunia (ewwwwww), which unfortunately is devoid of any sexual chemistry, despite Hopkins and Kidman’s best efforts. What could be more fun?

The only bright spot in the movie are the flashbacks to Coleman’s young adulthood, where Coleman is played nicely by newcomer Wentworth Miller (can’t wait to see him in more films) and his mother is the great Anna Deveare Smith. Hers is a thankless, need-to-be-so-subtle-the-audience-may-miss-you role, until her final scene, a wonderfully played confrontation with her son. The only joyful moment that manages to lighten the gloom is a nice scene where Coleman, high on sex with Faunia and Viagra, teaches Sinise’s character to dance. The scene is a welcome break, it’s not too talky or too gloomy and it shows us a side of Coleman that we need to spend more time with in order to appreciate his downfall.

If the movie spent more time in Coleman’s past (both the flashbacks to when he was quite young and closer to the present of the main action of the movie), developing him and the characters around him, we might be a bit more interested in all this depression. The movie clocks in at a little over an hour and a half, so an awful lot was jettisoned from the 368 page source novel, perhaps a bit too much. There’s a nemesis at the college for Coleman that we never see in the movie and a lot more color and thought-provoking debates, none of which make it into the film. Instead we get a classics lectures from Coleman on Achilles (his downfall was a woman – wow, the symbolism, the parallels to what will happen to Coleman!) and a bunch of awkward references to the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal. All of this is a bit distracting from what seems to be the main theme of race and how it shapes a person’s identity, even if that person tries to run from it.

It’s a little hard to figure out how an award-winning best seller novel and a cast full of Academy and Emmy award winners and nominees added up to such a mediocre movie. Lay the blame at the feet of director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer who just mis-adapted the story.

To call the film pointless would be generous. To call it a huge disappoint given the players would be accurate.

It’s as if the folks putting out the DVD knew the movie was a snoozer and so didn’t want to put much effort into the extras. There’s an incredibly weak behind-the scenes special that mainly features the actors and director saying how nice everyone was to work with and how thrilled they were to be doing the movie and nothing else. Then there’s a tribute to cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, who died not long after filming "The Human Stain". Through the silent and short montage, we’re reminded that he shot better movies ("Good Will Hunting") and worse ones ("Rounders"), but nothing else. Pretty much of a waste of space and not much of a tribute to the man.

Jennifer has an opinion on pretty much everything and is always happy to foist it upon others.


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