The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)

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My stance with the obnoxious whiners, both the ones for and against what is so often frankly mislabeled “political correctness” ever in flux, my opinion on The Human Stain‘s own argument is not unlike the opening joke of Annie Hall about two elderly Jewish ladies complaining about the awful food, and in such small portions: it is all at once desperately stupid, and isn’t made at all strongly enough.

It is almost universally acknowledged that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are woefully miscast in this film. I mean, obviously, Nicole Kidman, a nigh-perpetual charisma vacuum, appears miscast in pretty much everything but the casting of protagonist Coleman Silk is at least slightly interesting, if still pretty lousy. Better qualified and more dedicated people than me could explore the potential racial-identity-oriented implications of having the young Coleman Silk played by a man of Afro-Carribean and Jewish descent (Wentworth Miller), and the old Coleman Silk being played by a man with neither, with regard to Silk’s choices regarding his familial and racial disconnection, but I don’t feel all that comfortable exploring it right now, myself. What I shall instead say is that, despite my general lack of interest in Miller, I think he does a pretty fine job, all things considered, both of portraying Silk on his own terms and also reflecting Hopkins’ mannerisms enough to make one a believable younger version of the other. However, this only further establishes something of a star-power-dynamic, as the latter’s performance is a wholly workaday Hopkins-as-Hopkins which, especially in the context of the May-December relationship between Silk and Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), makes The Human Stain appear an overly-serious dummy-run for the equally underwhelming Allen comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The catalyst for the lacklustre narrative, Silk’s loss of his academic post on account of his use of the term “spooks,” meaning “ghosts,” being seemingly intentionally misconstrued as “spooks,” meaning “Black people,” is wholly dependent not on the clandestine racial origins of the speaker, but the lack of level-headedness of his colleagues, given the clarity of context of the word, situated in the phrase “do they exist, or are they spooks?” This is ever so slightly alluded to, right near the very of the film which, given what’s just happened at the climax, everyone essentially goes – “who cares?” However, the bulk of the film is essentially predicated on a deeply inane “freezepeach” babble: “What do you mean I can’t use a racial slur? What if I’m secretly Black? Didn’t think of THAT one, didya?” An argument made predominantly by the whitest of white men.

Nicole Kidman is, of course, awful but, to be fair, so is her character. The Wentworth Miller-led flashback sections are, without a doubt, the most engaging, but are entirely cheapened and embittered by the fact that what is actually a fairly compelling story of one man is being used, inappropriately and poorly, as smoke-and-mirrors for a completely fatuous argument. The tensions surrounding Faunia and her obnoxious PTSD outbursts, one-dimensional allusions to childhood molestation, dead children, and her not-at-all-menacing menacing ex husband (Ed Harris), beyond being dull and grating, also distract from the point the story is trying to make. The result is, rather than complexity, The Human Stain merely gains confusion.

The Human Stain suffers through its underuse of good actors in good roles, overuse of good actors in bad roles, and overuse of bad actors in bad roles, never with enough conviction or narrative drive to express its point to the extent that it could be described as a “commentary” or “satire,” and it’s a stupid point anyway.

 

*1/2

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