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Overall Rating

Awesome: 11.43%
Worth A Look: 21.43%
Average: 7.14%
Pretty Bad42.86%
Total Crap: 17.14%

6 reviews, 34 user ratings

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Human Stain, The
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by Stephen Groenewegen

2 stars

You never see Harrison Ford in overalls unclogging a drainpipe on screen, do you? In real life he used to be a carpenter, and he knows that Hollywood stars rarely look convincing as blue-collar types. Lately, there’s been a rash of glamorous actresses tying back their hair and applying a spot of dirt under their fingernails. Renée Zellweger and Nicole Kidman wielded a mean pitchfork in Cold Mountain, and Jennifer Connelly vacuumed in her little denim cut-offs during House of Sand and Fog. Nicole must really have a complex about hiring home help - here she is again, this time with a mop and bucket, playing a janitor in The Human Stain. What these actors sacrifice for their art, or at least to appear in a Philip Roth adaptation.

Kidman chain smokes aggressively, adopts a husky drawl and paces restlessly like a caged bird. She’s trying very hard, and that’s part of the problem (along with her flawless skin). Everybody in this film is out to win an Oscar. The principals are all cast in showy, against-type roles. It’s hard to believe in the truth of a character when you’re distracted by who’s playing them. Here’s Ed Harris as Faunia’s ex-husband, a psychotically dangerous delusional Vietnam veteran. Gary Sinise can work up an authentic-looking, brow-mopping sweat so let’s cast him as a reclusive writer instead. Hiring Anthony Hopkins to play a university lecturer doesn’t seem too much of a stretch, until you learn the humdinger of a secret in his past on which both novel and film turn.

In 1998, at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Coleman Silk (Hopkins) is Classics professor and Dean of Athena College in Massachusetts. His reforming ways have made him unpopular with the university establishment and his enemies are waiting to pounce as soon as he slips. “Are they spooks?” he asks rhetorically of a couple of non-attending students, unaware that they are African-American. They cry racism and charge that he used “spooks” as a racial epithet. The college administration fail to back Silk and he resigns in rage and disgust. Only a reckless, passionate fling with Faunia Farley (Kidman), an angry young woman half his age, allows Silk to move on. It also brings to mind his first love back in the 1940s, when Coleman Silk determinedly began forging a new identity for himself...

The Human Stain is the third in Roth’s trilogy about postwar America (following American Pastoral and I Married A Communist). This dense novel of ideas offers any adaptor a formidable challenge and, regrettably, Nicholas Meyer (Sommersby, Fatal Attraction) is not up to the task. Meyer delineates two stories from Roth’s novel but barely integrates them. The Human Stain seems more like two disparate films patched together than one.

The story of Silk’s youth is treated as a coming-of-age tale with political and moral reverberations. His “ill-considered” fling with Faunia is supposed to be shocking but is portrayed in conventional soft-focus Hollywood style. Besides, a man in his seventies dating a 34-year old woman is standard American cinematic fare these days. The connecting material that should link these halves is missing. How does Silk’s past inform his present liaison with Faunia? What are we supposed to make of the “spooks” affair? Is it merely an excuse to rail against political correctness or an ironic footnote to Silk’s life?

It might have helped if Meyer had trimmed away more of Roth’s diversions and not tried to cram in everything from the novel as background. Director Robert Benton (Twilight, Nobody’s Fool) makes sedate movies for grown-ups now (it’s 37 years since he co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde!). His direction is overly cautious and he fails to instil the film with any of the book’s colour or political fervour. By making Silk a Classics professor (“Achilles on Viagra”), Roth was obviously trying for a modern American Greek tragedy. But The Human Stain has no resonance or moral grandeur. Benton and Meyer handle Roth’s themes tentatively, as if intimidated by his vigorous prose. The late cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier shot in muted, sombre tones and the film desperately lacks energy (Escoffier died in April 2003, after filming had wrapped).

Silk describes Farley as “ignitable”, and he’s a combustible character himself. A movie about them should be lively and controversial, not respectful and dull. “People are getting dumber but more opinionated”, remarks one of Roth’s mouthpieces. Here’s a movie for people who don’t even have opinions.

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originally posted: 03/04/04 13:24:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/04/15 Anne Mixed as far as talent goes, disjointed 3 stars
9/03/08 Shaun Wallner Boring not worth it! 1 stars
10/22/06 William Goss Self-indulgent awards bait that clumsily attempts literary scope. Unfulfilling. 2 stars
6/22/06 TB Too many flashback in the film=Dull 2 stars
6/19/06 chienne another film stuffed up by Kidman, when will they stop her making them? 1 stars
11/15/05 BoyInTheDesignerBubble Spook is a racist name. I'll forgive you for not knowing that. 4 stars
8/26/05 Indrid Cold Anthony Hopkins as an African American (!) is not as interesting as it sounds. 3 stars
5/17/05 m orwig spectacular performances 5 stars
3/07/05 ad sucks 1 stars
10/23/04 ODH Great ideas, but poor direction/storytelling and bad casting limit the film 3 stars
9/29/04 Harry D Anthony Hopkins make this one more than worthwhile. He is authentic. 4 stars
9/16/04 Terry McGuffage Why was she talking to a crow? This may actually be the worst movie I have ever seen. 1 stars
9/16/04 Doc Shock Boring. Unlikeable characters. 2 stars
8/09/04 ownerofdajoint best movie kidman has ever done see it for her..hopkins is regular excellent self also,,, 4 stars
8/04/04 Beth too long, too much of Kidman, and boring 2 stars
7/25/04 Kyle the cat great acting,good beginning,poor ending 4 stars
7/19/04 hollywood Hopkins miscast. No mystery, suspense at all. 2 stars
5/17/04 kasper absolute crap... boring, miscast and confusing 1 stars
3/26/04 rojo Genuine emotion in this movie, really liked it. 5 stars
1/26/04 Vladislava Vojnovic Screenwriters work! 4 stars
1/21/04 Betty White Hopkins is miscast, but still good in this masterful film. 5 stars
12/09/03 Lyn Superb movie, especially for those who believe in the universal law of cause and effect. 5 stars
12/08/03 Marcin very well done and perfect acting both of them(KIdman and Hopkins) making good feeling 5 stars
12/05/03 MacGregor A film for thoughtful people. Should win Oscar. Geezer R scenes are gross!! 5 stars
12/02/03 illconceivedplot I agree this film has some ragged edges, bizarre transitions, and implausible twists. 3 stars
11/28/03 atirupa great 5 stars
11/26/03 viewer Well acted well told story 4 stars
11/22/03 john interesting, good acting, Nocole Kidman yes in deedie 4 stars
11/13/03 gloria flashbacks are probably more worth seeing than performances by nicole and anthony 4 stars
11/07/03 Cameron Slick Not completely cohesive but with great acting and intrigue. 4 stars
11/06/03 Kooler What a snooze! Plus: gross old man sex. Yurg. 2 stars
11/04/03 nik anthony hopkins? wouldn't bill cosby have worked as well here? 1 stars
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  31-Oct-2003 (R)
  DVD: 12-Apr-2011



Directed by
  Robert Benton

Written by
  Nicholas Meyer

  Anthony Hopkins
  Nicole Kidman
  Ed Harris
  Gary Sinise
  Jacinda Barrett
  Ron Canada

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