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HUMAN STAIN, THE(director: Robert Benton; screenwriters: from the novel by Philip Roth/Nicholas Meyer; cinematographer: Jean Yves Escoffier; editor: Christopher Tellefsen; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Anthony Hopkins (Coleman Silk), Nicole Kidman (Faunia Farley), EdHarris (Lester Farley), Gary Sinise (Nathan Zuckerman), Wentworth Miller (Young Coleman), Jacinda Barrett (Steena Paulsson), Harry Lennix (Mr. Silk), Clark Gregg (Nelson Primus), Anna Deavere Smith (Mrs. Silk), Lizan Mitchell (Ernestine Silk), Danny Blanco Hall (Walter Silk), Phyllis Newman (Iris Silk); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gary Lucchesi/Scott Steindorff/Tom Rosenberg; Miramax Films; 2003)
A messy melodrama.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: there are spoilers throughout. For this reason some might prefer reading the review after seeing the film.

”The Human Stain” is a messy melodrama. It’s much like but not as accomplished as Douglas Sirk’s masterful Imitation of Life, where racism in society plays a heavy role in influencing one’s self-esteem. It’s stylishly directed by Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) with a true allegiance paid to Philip Roth’s cunningly aesthetic 2000 novel. The Human Stain is the last of a trilogy—American Pastoral and I Married a Communist—whose themes deal with the split in the national psyche through loss and grief. Its title is taken from the sordid Monica Lewinsky incident with the prez. The screenplay is by Nicholas Meyer and the lavish cinematography is by Jean-Yves Escoffier. It should be noted that the film is dedicated to Mr. Escoffier who died after the film wrapped.

Roth’s book investigates with a savage irony such topics as identity, sex, college politics, lies, race and culture. The way these topics unfolded as literary devices make it more suitable in a book than a movie, nevertheless despite a few gigantic missteps the film held my attention throughout and I was always tuned into the characters. It even had some surprising moments of raw power, as it throws many ideas against the wall and some resonated. The Human Stain uses one of the lead characters, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), to be Roth’s alter ego and the narrator-within-the-story. Through this convention we learn the story of a recently widowed Jewish classics professor of distinction, at the prestigious but tiny Athena College in Massachusetts, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins). He was born black in East Orange, New Jersey, but has passed himself off as white most of his adult life.

The film begins from an incident that reflects on how uptight American society is about race relations and its institutions that cover up their moral blankness by dumb attempts to be politically correct. The story is set in the summer of 1998 and continues through the winter. That was when the President Clinton scandal broke over whether he had sex with Monica Lewinsky and his lie about the affair got the sanctimonious right-wing to call for his impeachment, while most in the country saw this as funny material for the comics. Professor Silk’s problem is somehow linked with that call for political correctness. The respected dean who helped the college become a great scholarly institution, refers to two absent students in his lecture as “spooks,” meaning ghosts. He is unaware that the two students are black and when the students bring him up on charges of using racial slurs, his weak-kneed colleagues absurdly refuse to back him. In protest he quits. At home, when he tells this to his wife Iris, she gets so upset that she dies in his arms from the strain.

Wanting to get his story out and get revenge on his colleagues Coleman tracks down the gentle reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman, living in solitude after two divorces and surviving prostrate cancer, in a nearby lakeside cabin. He tells the writer he can give him a juicy story that will cure his writer’s block, but the writer for the time being chooses to become friends and gin rummy partners and share a musical interest in a radio program broadcasting big band tunes from the 1940s. In one glorious scene they dance to Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek.” But it’s not until the film’s conclusion that Nathan understands that Coleman helped him live again and feels obligated to tell his friend’s story.

The 70-ish Coleman also begins another new friendship at the same time he met Nathan. He gives the thirtysomething milkmaid and college and post office janitor Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a car ride and before you know it they’re in bed. Coleman in a scene that appears more like a TV ad, tells Nathan he owes his potency to Viagra. Faunia becomes an unnecessary plot device and this chemistry free and unbelievable relationship brings the film down to an absurd level it almost never recovers from. It seems Faunia also has a few secrets to lay down, as she tells about splitting at 14 from her wealthy mother and step-father because mom didn’t believe her when told she was sexually abused. Faunia has lived a troubled life since, refusing wealth and ending up married to a deranged, bigoted, ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), who served as a killing machine in Vietnam and has repeatedly beaten her. She also has to live with the regret that her two children died in an accidental fire under her watch. Faunia lives in fear that Lester, despite a court restraining order, keeps stalking her in his red pickup truck, as Coleman fails to comfort her even as he bravely boasts about once being a pretty good boxer and will protect her. Kidman deserves a medal for going through the scene where she lays her heart out to a crow, a scene that has Ed Wood Jr. written all over it. Even though Kidman can’t save that kind of sloppy dialogue from biting back, she nevertheless makes it less dreadful than it could have been.

In any case, Coleman forgets about getting revenge on his former college turncoats as he turns full attention to the affair. Can you blame the old geezer?

We learn about Coleman’s early life through flashbacks, as he’s played as a young man by Wentworth Miller–the biracial British actor. Much is made of his skill in boxing, and that he was mentored by a Jewish doctor–who might be his real father. Since he doesn’t look like anyone in his family, I guess that might be one way of explaining his light appearance.

In one of the flashbacks we learn of his first-love for a blonde Midwesterner of Danish stock, Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett), attending college in NYC, and how she breaks with him because even though she loves him she can’t go through with marrying a Negro. This is resolved when he cruelly brings her to meet mom without mentioning his background, and she gallantly sits through the dinner while in a state of shock. After that rejection he joins the navy to get away and fills out the application that he’s white. From thereon he lives the rest of his life with a well-orchestrated lie, never even telling his wife the truth.

Coleman’s modern tragedy is compared to a Greek tragedy, where all problems are related to man’s relationship with women.

That Mr. Hopkins as an unrevealed black man and Ms. Kidman as a sullen janitor might be miscast, should not take away from how effective they were in their glossy performances. They were still fun to watch. In any case, casting anyone for the Coleman Silk part would have been questioned for obvious reasons. That Miller does not resemble Hopkins is apparent, but might not matter if you can just put the resemblance issue aside and enjoy the solid performance given by Mr. Miller. It might also help to realize that racial identity is more a psychological and cultural question than one of DNA. The film’s strongest supporting performance is reserved for Coleman’s forthright mother Anna Deavere Smith, who plays the Juanita Moore role in Imitation of Life and gives the film the honesty and force no other character could deliver in the same astonishingly magnetic way she does in drilling home the point of racial identity and being true to one’s self. For her astute summation of the events alone, the film was worth catching. Though many parts of the film were spotty and awkward and there never seemed to be an easy point to draw from the whole, nevertheless the characterizations and the inflammatory subject about racism should give one much to ponder long after the film is over.

REVIEWED ON 11/19/2003 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”