Men raised as apes. Mannered mice. Women with bad body hair days. Don't expect anything halfway normal in the ironically-titled "Human Nature," the first collaboration between the brilliant Michel Gondry and even more brilliant Charlie Kaufman. Forget style above substance -- this is a thinking man's comedy, quirky and utterly hilarious.
It opens with a dead man, a convicted woman, and a genteel simian-man all speaking of their pasts: Lila (Patricia Arquette) became horribly hirsute when she was a teen -- by twenty, she was "Queen Kong" in a sideshow. Miserable, she retreated to the woods and became a reknowned nature writer. During electrolysis treatment some years later, a nurse offers to set her up with a desperate guy: Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a manners-obsessed scientist who is teaching them to white mice.
One day in the woods, Lila and Nathan come across a feral young man they call Puff (Rhys Ifans) -- as explained early on, Puff's father thought he was an ape, and raised his son accordingly. Now Puff is being taught the ways of humanity, as Lila tries to preserve the more primitive things about human beings -- and a warped love triangle results.
Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman recently collaborated on the wonderful, poignant "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," so it's not surprising that their first joint film was also excellent. It's the sort of film that can't be easily pegged as one thing or another -- part comedy, part satire, part blinking question mark. Is it human nature to be naked and free, to be civilized and uptight, or does it lie somewhere in the middle? Are we just animals in clothes, or do humans have something more... or less? "Human Nature" doesn't answer all these questions, but it does make you think about them.
Michel Gondry's quirky style -- he directed some of Bjork's best music videos -- suits this equally quirky movie. He keeps the movie jumping quickly from scene to scene, moving fast enough that you never get bored. And he seems like a kind of directorial minimalist (the afterlife is a white room with a white table and white mist). At other times, he takes slapstick to new heights, lightening up the cerebral tone of the comedy.
The surreal flashbacks and oddball comedy (like Ifans wearing a shock collar) give "Human Nature" cinematic style. But the characters are what really fill up the screen -- Arquette does an excellent job as the tormented Lila, particularly during a beautiful musical number in the woods. Rhys Ifans is even better, whether it's as an uncivilized ape-man, or as an eloquent, rather dapper ape-man.
Dorky scientists, civilized simians and hairy women sound like an idiotic basis for a movie, but Kaufman and Gondry transform it into a smart, strange comedy. Definitely not to be missed.