Tim Robbins and Miranda Otto are an often hilarious adulterous couple in "Human Nature," two over-civilized phonies in a sarcastic comedy about civilization vs. primitivism from writer Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich"). But the movie itself is an arch, frothy little satire/fairy tale that recasts the noble-savage myth as a lewd romantic comedy - costarring Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans ("Notting Hill") as the primitive couple and Robbins and Otto as the civilized one.
A movie about how civilization corrupts and sex drives everybody nuts, it's a satire of films like Truffaut's "Wild Child" and Herzog's "Kaspar Hauser," and it is framed by a clever three-part narration: Lila Jute (Arquette) tells her story from a jail cell, Puff (Ifans) before a congressional committee and Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Robbins) from the afterlife, where he sits calmly in a white room with a bullet hole in his forehead.
Lila is a beautiful woman, covered with body hair since age 12, who fled the city for life as a forest recluse and best-selling nature writer. She returns in search of love, which sparks up when her electrolysist, Louise (Rosie Perez), introduces her to Nathan, an anally retentive behavioral scientist fixated on teaching table manners to mice. (The reason: an unhappy childhood spent with etiquette-obsessed parents Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place.) After marrying Nathan, Lila meets Puff, a feral man whose insane father raised him as an ape - until he falls into the clutches of well-bred Nathan.
So Puff (named after the Peter, Paul and Mary song) is kept by Nathan and his fake-French assistant Gabrielle (Otto) in a glass cage furnished like a Masterpiece Theater set, put on a great books and opera appreciation program, and jolted with an electric prod whenever he has one of his frequent sexual urges.
As Nathan, Robbins is a perfect stiff-necked neurotic. Otto, the superb young Australian actress of "Love Serenade," is a delightfully mean faux belle, her accent and saucy, pouty "ooh-la-la" flirtatiousness as phony as a three-franc note. I was less happy with Lila and Puff, a soured post-Gen X writer's misconception of '60s free spirits, three decades late. Kaufman is a smart writer, and director Michel Gondry is a French rock video and advertising ace who's made the film a deliberate throwback to the comic and cinematic style of the '50s and '60s. But some movies just rub you the wrong way, and I'm afraid that's the case with me and "Human Nature." Gondry and Kaufman take a very rich theme and do something small, coy and limited with it. Very limited. "Human Nature" tries for both civilized wit and primitive joy - and mostly misses both.
Directed by Michel Gondry; written by Charlie Kaufman; photographed by Tim Maurice Jones; edited by Russell Icke; production designed by K.K. Barrett; music by Graeme Revell; produced by Anthony Bregman, Ted Hope, Spike Jonze, Kaufman. A Fine Line Features release; opens Friday, April 12. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: R (sexuality/nudity, language).
Nathan Bronfman - Tim Robbins
Lila Jute - Patricia Arquette
Puff - Rhys Ifans
Gabrielle - Miranda Otto
Louise - Rosie Perez
Nathan's Father - Robert Forster Nathan's Mother - Mary Kay Place
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.