The Human Stain
Director: Robert Benton. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett, Anna Deavere Smith, Ron Canada, Harry J. Lennix, Margo Martindale, Lizan Mitchell, Phyllis Newman, Mimi Kuzyk, Kerry Washington, Clark Gregg, Vito DeFilippo, Mili Avital, Richard Mawe. Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer (based on the novel by Philip Roth).

Remember the opening line from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." You have to reverse that formulation for cinema, because while all the great movies are great in some distinctive fashion, the awful movies all resemble one another. You can probably count the basic ways in which bad films are bad on one hand. The most obvious are the slipshod, unloved, unconsidered, incompetent flicks that serve as filler at the multiplex until something, anything, better comes along. Within a 2003 frame of reference, we'll call this the View from the Top school of bad filmmaking. A second way, almost opposed to the first, encompasses lavish studio products that try to marshal lush visuals, beautiful faces, enveloping sounds, and vanguard special-effects into a superficial voluptuary's paradise, all in order to conceal either an evil and pernicious ideology (viz. The Matrix) or else utter disorganization and emptiness (viz. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions).

A third way describes the gasping, desperate attempts of once-great filmmakers who seem more and more to wholly misunderstand the very bases of their early success; Woody Allen's bottoming out into The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Anything Else are sadly emblematic cases. And a fourth way, again by means of unattractive opposites, includes the equally gasping, equally desperate attempts of new filmmakers to stake an identity in a medium they badly misunderstand, sometimes through slavish imitation of proven recipes, often via a misapprehension that attitude alone provides a theme or structural spine. Pete Hedges' dismal Pieces of April is the most recent case in point of this route, dredging its audience-baiting notion that all of our families are lovably wacko through a horrendously ugly, artificially acted, disjointedly scripted bog of un-technique. Hedges was kind enough to add a little soupçon of smug liberal guilt-inducement, deliberately evoking stereotypes of street-trafficking African-American drug hustlers and then heckling those audience members who fello into a trap he himself kicked them into.

Finally, there is the fifth dimension of bad moviemaking, the thumb on this unholy hand of offenses. Or maybe it's the palm, because it is the sad fate of these movies to combine the signature ills of the other four categories. Robert Benton's The Human Stain, a tricky adaptation of an unlikely novel that nevertheless goes almost as wrong as possible, falls into this unlucky rubric. The Human Stain was abashedly swept under the rug of a micro-mini release, despite being delivered by marquee actors and top-drawer technical talent, not to mention drawn from the work of a living-legend American author, Philip Roth. The picture is (mis)directed by a three-time Oscar winner whose name once conferred esteem, but the movie is nonetheless prey to the most amateur varieties of structural and tonal errors. All the devil's criteria are met. The Human Stain is bad in every way it is possible to be bad, even if there are isolated instants when it works. This result is especially galling, because the movie never stops emanating a sense not just of its tony pedigree but of its social importance. I walked out of the Landmark Regent Theatre in Los Angeles practically wanting to cry, not just at the opportunity that had been squandered but at the prim, roseate way in which the movie vainly attempted to countenance its own failure as something superior, ennobling.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Coleman Silk, a bullish Classics professor and sometime administrator at a small New England college who, after decades of venerated if quietly resented service, is lambasted by friends and foes alike for what strikes him as a wrong-minded and arbitrary allegation of racism. Coleman, incensed as he is by the accusations, is even more incensed once his colleagues start officiously prescribing apologies and proper responses which they feel are his duty to pronounce. When Coleman's wife unexpectedly dies amid all of this seamy public fracas, he insists—out of pure bitterness or incipient madness, we are never sure—that his campus persecutors are responsible for this crisis, too. Roth's novel doesn't unfold so much as it snowballs, as Coleman's unleashed anger revivifies all the angers and animosities he has nursed throughout his life. Hardly anyone's martyred innocent, though, Coleman is also forced by the novel and his own subliminal conscience to confront the injuries he has meanly dealt to others in his past, the secrets he has cravenly if understandably kept, the pretenses he has maintained past all compassion or necessity.

To answer two obvious questions, yes I have read the book, and no I do not think it's a masterpiece, though it is very, very good. Roth's story allows him to evoke a formidable cross-section of American neuroses regarding social standing, class, race, sexism, the elitism of higher education, and our hypocritical demands of public figures. The impeachment of Bill Clinton plays out in the background of this novel, but it isn't just scenery; the unforgettable opening pages of The Human Stain, surely among the more excoriating passages in modern American fiction, make clear that Roth's fury at American puritanism and his vehement contempt for all forms of moral scapegoating are both the precondition and the main engine behind the work. Indeed, there is a slightly tendentious way in which, for all the complex psychological and social architecture Roth supplies to Coleman's dilemma, the character and his plight often seem to exist only as vessels for Roth's own rather different fulminations, his own bullish rage. The way The Human Stain partitions Roth's authorial voice between the rampaging but romantically outsized Coleman and the more understated, self-consciously minor writer Nathan Zuckerman feels a little forced, even mawkish at times, never more so than when they enjoy an impromptu slow dance on a star-lit porch, a scene that arrives out of nowhere and quickly returns from whence it came.

And yet, what rage. Even if nothing quite holds The Human Stain together besides Roth's unending howl against his era and his compatriots, it's a dazzling performance, wrought into prose that actually deserves the adjectives Roth seems to desire: muscular, thrusting, forceful, impassioned. Characteristically enough, his abilities and discipline falter when it comes to portraying Faunia Farley, the central woman in the piece, an illiterate cleaning-woman employed at the college who becomes Coleman's lover despite being much younger and from a different universe entirely. Roth would have us believe they are united by their mutual disinterest in public shows of commitment and their desire to be unconditionally, unskeptically attended to by someone who won't push. It isn't long before we realize what a sticky wish-fulfillment Faunia supplies both to Coleman and to Roth; she's a trusting, undemanding woman of voluptuous physique—nurse, confidante, inamorata, and tragic muse all at once. In other words, she's even more sentimentally conceived than Coleman is, and without the white-hot light of social disdain and the curdling atmosphere of pretended contentment blaring across the pages, her bond with Coleman would drip into soggy fantasy.

Which is exactly what happens in Benton's neutered, horrifyingly conservative film. The point is not that the cinematic Human Stain is not much of a replica of Roth's book, which in itself is hardly a crime, and not the right basis on which to judge a movie. However, just as the novel is an emblematic case of how a pressing, fiercely wrought style and tone can cohere a rambling premise, the film is a matchless symbol of poor structural choices and totally misplaced nostalgia. We can all get together at a book club some time and rue the disappearance of Delphine Roux, the petty and martial and ultimately insecure French professor who emerges from Roth's pages both as Coleman's key antagonist and as the novel's Twin Tower of demented hypocrisy and self-undermining ambition. I'm sad to see her vanish, but it's not an inveterate problem.

What is an inveterate problem is that the film of The Human Stain falls perfectly in the orbit of reactionary politics and quietistic values that the picture dimly pretends to critique. Hopkins, a frequently self-caricaturing actor who has a Richard Burton-ish need for directorial discipline, seems all fired up to play The Last Angry Man, but there's no way for him to do it without some meaningful and impressive entity to rail against. Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer seem to have forgotten that their story is about a worldly climate much bigger than their handful of major characters. And they've absurdly failed to realize that if most of the characters they retain are essentially sympathetic to Coleman, like Nicole Kidman's wounded Faunia and Gary Sinise's tepid Zuckerman, then you wind up with a movie about a renegade surrounded by friends.

Only Ed Harris as Lester Farley, Kidman's psychotic ex-husband, remains as a foil to Coleman, infuriated by the old stag's liaison with the woman he loves and hates. With half the film consumed by queasily soft-focused scenes of bedroom rapture between Hopkins and Kidman, and about half dedicated to Harris' fuming skulks and Sinise's ineffectual mooning, you can tell right away that The Human Stain is now a straight-up romantic melodrama, set among the burgundy boughs of New England and scored by Rachel Portman as a drama of beating hearts. Beyond just a travesty of the book, this film is a travesty of itself, since it gives the actors (particularly Sinise) nothing to do, gives the cinematographer, composer, and art director the cruel job of prettying up a foundation-less story, and worst of all, it turns every single flashback to the younger Coleman's life into an all-purpose Rosetta Stone for everything that (isn't) happening in the present tense.

Lots of critics have congratulated Wentworth Miller for bringing the enigmatic charisma to young Coleman that is missing from every other performance, sequence, and cranny of the film; I would add that Anna Deavere Smith and Harry J. Lennix as Coleman's aggrieved parents, rising star Kerry Washington as his angry sister, and Lizan Mitchell as Washington's grown-up alter ego are equally fine, equally hinting of the kinds of complexities which The Human Stain is totally incapable of engaging. But for all their good work, these actors are still trapped in the film's nasty structure, pornographically built around the big reveal of Coleman's racial status. Every time a black person is on screen, the film gives off a dewy melancholy, amplified by more bars of Portman's plaintive music, as though race itself—not how Coleman experiences his race, or how racial tensions collide with a wider kaleidoscope of social forces—is self-evidently tragic. This is Victorian-era thinking, redolent of a time when Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Octoroon made the tragic mulatto a two-dimensional staple of sentimental manipulation. William Faulkner and Nella Larsen, writing eighty years ago, already would have found this address of racial problematics laughably antique, but because Benton has dressed it up with accomplished stars, burnished locations, and the right number of tearfully emotional pas de deux, he aspires to get away with it.

Even if a certain kind of uncritical audience might slurp this up—since reductive mirages that look like gruff social essays are never, sadly, too far out of favor—the same audiences are bound to be perplexed by all kinds of remnants from Roth's novel that are already fragmentary on the page, and even more ungainly onscreen. Why is Nicole Kidman confiding her woes to a crow in a cage? Why is that Coleman-Zuckerman waltz keyed up into a stentorian, gold-lit centerpiece scene—and in fact, what is Zuckerman even doing in this story? He's the least interesting audience surrogate since John Cusack took up space in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, another movie that found a subversive bestseller and lacquered it into a coffee-table curio. Unfamiliar viewers will need to consult either the book or someone who's read it to piece some of these shards together, but this venture is doomed to lift the curtain on everything else the movie has swept under the rug.

So, what we've finally got here is a bowdlerized adaptation of an uneven novel starring overstated and overfamiliar actors in underwritten parts, cast in a story that has opted to drop its own organizing ideas, abjectly held together by a single plot strand that is tailored into the likeness of Reconstruction-era tearjerkers. A talented composer is consigned into some of her most cloying work, and Jean-Yves Escoffier, a valiant cinematographer working on what proved to be his final picture, is forced to work with the most Vaseline-coated lenses since Warren Beatty's Love Affair. Don't the creators of a project like this ever step back, as they hit their tenth or eleventh basic compromise from the shape of what they intended to make, and wonder whether this is really a project worth pursuing? This isn't a movie designed to entertain or equipped to illuminate. The most it might do is make you hopping mad, Philip Roth-mad, at an industry that appropriates meaty, idea-driven novels (see, too, DreamWorks' House of Sand and Fog) and processes them into spam. Maybe Miramax, of all studios, got wise to the faithlessness of what Benton produced. For an expensive prestige project that was no doubt developed with visions of Oscar dancing in Harvey's head, you sure had to work hard to find The Human Stain in theaters, and it took an unseasonably long time to debut, with barely a whisper, on DVD. Even Lasse Hallström's The Shipping News, another indigestible bit of lit-film drivel, got more support than this. You don't often catch Miramax trying to forget one of its major in-house projects, but if that's what they would prefer, I will sure try my damnedest to oblige. Grade: F

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