Too Much Taste Removes This Stain

By Fernando F. Croce

Ah, autumn.

The temperature drops, the leaves fall, and the movies get duller. Oscar season is just around the corner, and studios are ready to unfurl their big-star, deep-dish prestige releases like end-of-year company bonuses. I'm supposed to be relieved that summer is over and solemn, serious pictures are making their way to the screen -- time to take out my fall vocabulary and dig for such reliable chestnuts as "inspiring ode to the human spirit" or "a film for the ages." Truth be told, the seasonal scrambling for award-snatching respectability has always struck me as much more opportunistic than the supposedly soulless popcorn blockbusters I'm expected to despise a priori. So many films around this time start coming on with an aura of pious swank and sweep, designed to let you in on the Truths of Life, their taste and tact more circumscribing than ennobling. (This year's crop includes Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Last Samurai and Cold Mountain.)

I had hopes that The Human Stain, Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's highly acclaimed novel, would sidestep that trap. Despite the makers' obvious intelligence and some painfully affecting moments, however, the film is clogged from beginning to end with the kind of leaden, genteel November-December respectability that hardens my moviegoing arteries.

The setting is 1998, at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (repeatedly brought up but as mere background color, its implications brushed aside). Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is a respected, sixtysomething professor who quits his job at the New England university where he's taught for decades following an accusation of racism. Years later, feeling he's been mauled by the jaws of political correctness, he approaches reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) with his story. The two become friends, and life starts picking up again for Coleman. He even enjoys a Viagra-propelled affair with Faunia (Nicole Kidman), an emotionally bruised cleaning lady with an abusive Vietnam vet of an ex (Ed Harris) on her back. But she's not the only one with baggage: Coleman, we find out, is actually a light- skinned African-American who has passed for white (and Jewish) since his days growing up as a young boxer.

I haven't read Roth's novel, but I don't feel I have to be familiar with a film's original source in order to examine the finished work. (Don't worry, I'm not about to launch into yet another tedious cinema-and-literature-as-opposite-species diatribe.) The fact is that the ambitious plot, with its intimations of cultural-racial tensions and emotional gravitas (not to mention the complexity of its flashbacks) is a virtual blueprint for a tragedy of irony and personal guilt. Then why is the movie as chilly as its long, long rides across snowy New England roads (the standard Hollywood signifier for "seriousness")?

Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody's Fool) has always suffered from the visual deadness of the writer-turned-director syndrome, but in the past he has often shown unique gifts for emotional modulation and communicating with performers. (One example of his touch: Kidman's amused gaze as Hopkins fumbles for a match to light her cigarette.) Benton's intelligence and sensitivity are evident all through The Human Stain, yet he seems curiously intimidated, tied down to "doing justice" to Roth's novel (condensed to screenplay form by Nicholas Meyer) instead of tackling and exploring it, and making it his own. The result is that Coleman's self-deception and the mutually redeeming love affair with Faunia (as well as the ensuing tragedy) are worthy but unmoving, more of an admirable aim than a fully engaged realization.

The same could be said about the actors, normally one of Benton's strengths. Hopkins gives the part engaging gentleness tempered with virility, yet he can't convince -- not of his character's race, but of the feelings that would have led him to such a facade. Kidman's is a much more problematic performance. Her feral glamour has been dutifully dampened by the costume department (spurious tattoos, messy shag, dangling cigarette), but Kidman is wrong for her battered character, particularly false in her big monologue (to a caged crow, no less). The best performance comes from relative newcomer Wentworth Miller, who plays Coleman as a younger man. Whether expressing delicate erotic longing with his girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) or wrenching anxiety with his proud parents (Harry Lennix and Anna Deavere Smith, both superb), Miller beautifully reveals the knotted emotions that lead to living a lie -- a fresher and more varied performance, in fact, than Hopkins'. If only the rest of the movie displayed the insight and force of his scenes, The Human Stain would have lived up to its bold intentions.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on November 5, 2003.

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