A Gorilla of a Novel, a Mess of a Movie; Robert Benton’s “The Human Stain”
by Peter Brunette
“The Human Stain,” directed by Robert Benton, should be studied in every film school in the land — as an example of exactly what not to do. Even when faced with the least trivial decision, Benton, best known for the quarter-century-old “Kramer vs. Kramer,” manages, uncannily, to make the wrong choice every time. It’s true that the deck was stacked against him from the beginning, given that the source of the film is the dauntingly rich, if petulant, novel by Philip Roth, one of America’s greatest living novelists. Any attempt to adapt Roth’s verbal pyrotechnics for the screen would inevitably come up short. But still…
The story focuses on aging professor of classics, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), who is assailed by the forces of political correctness at his college when, in one of his classes, he calls a couple of missing students “spooks” without knowing that they’re African-Americans. His life turned upside down, he befriends blocked, slightly misanthropic writer and frequent Roth stand-in Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), managing in the process to bring the dyspeptic novelist out of his shell. Even better for Silk, one of the college’s cleaning ladies, Faunia (Nicole Kidman — and no, you’re not hallucinating, Kidman plays a gum-snapping cleaning lady who also milks cows), a gorgeous gal half his age, jumps on his bones and transports him to the land of sexual bliss. The only cloud on the horizon is Faunia’s estranged husband Lester (Ed Harris), a crazed and homicidal Vietnam vet (you know the type) and — oh yes — a Dark Secret in Coleman’s past of the sort that critics are not supposed to talk about but which is heavily telegraphed from beginning to end of the film.
The first problem lies with the script. It’s told in voiceover by Zuckerman, a choice that works in the novel because it’s clear who’s telling us the story. In the film, it leads to collective headscratching until Zuckerman is finally introduced. A further problem is that Roth characteristically tortures his fictional characters with incident and dialogue that cascade down on them like an avalanche. By definition, most of that can’t be conveyed in a film. What Benton chooses to do, however, is to preserve the melodramatic elements, things like dead babies and vehicular homicide — perhaps they were taken to be more “cinematic” — and jettison everything else which is, of course, the good stuff. The other less appetizing feature of the novel that Benton has, alas, conveyed all too well is Roth’s whininess — an unpleasant curse that affects all too many senior male American novelists — about all those ethnic groups that have become so uppity and demanding. (Needless to say, never for a second do we get to see things from the point of view of a black person who objects to being called a “spook.”) This aspect of the story is obnoxiously wrapped up for us at the end of the film when, after it’s too late, Coleman’s black academic colleague beats his breast for not standing up for his friend. This gives Roth/Benton a chance to berate everyone present — and presumably audience members as well — for the putative “moral stupidity of the community.”
Other things don’t translate very well from the written page. For example, there’s a moment when Coleman forces Nathan to dance with him Astaire-and-Rogers style, and while it may have been magical on the page, it’s utterly awkward on screen. There’s also a double strip-tease, a heavy-handed attempt at rhyming Coleman’s young self, in flashback, with his old self, via a glimpse into what turns him on. (Viewers may merely end up wondering why Nicole doesn’t show as much as Jacinda Barrett, who plays Coleman’s first love.) And tastefulness? Coleman praises Viagra so frequently that you begin to think you’ve wandered into a Pfizer infomercial.
Flashbacks to Coleman’s earlier life are clunkily inserted and rarely motivated narratively, and we’re informed of big dramatic revelations in so lame a fashion that Benson might just as well have inserted title cards bearing the necessary info. All in all, you get the impression that screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was simply overwhelmed by Roth’s novel and instead of trying to re-imagine it from scratch in cinematic terms, just decided to cut, cut, cut. The result is an incomprehensible, poorly paced mess.
Another major problem is the casting. Hopkins is never for a moment convincing as a Jew — let alone as what he really is in his secret life — nor is Gary Sinise as the ur-Jewish Zuckerman. Kidman, trying her best to make us believe she really is a cleaning lady and cow-milker by droppin’ those “g’s” as fast as she can, is preposterous. (Oh, but wait, she was raised as a rich girl, we learn, and she floats aphorisms like “action is the enemy of thought,” which is maybe meant to allow us to like her more. Oh, but then how do you explain it when she dumps on Coleman for disapproving of her because she’s not the kind of person you can take to a fancy restaurant? Oh well.) Ed Harris, Mr. Supporting Actor, is, happily, believable as a berserk vet and when he’s on the screen, the film suddenly bursts into life. The other small part of the film that works are our all too brief glimpses into Coleman’s real family, which mostly come at the end, especially his understated mother (Anna Deavere Smith). Wentworth Miller, as the young Coleman, is also quietly powerful.
Once the decision to take on this 800-pound gorilla of a novel was made, the fateful die of failure was cast, I’m afraid. (Notice that no other recent Roth novels have been adapted.) So it’s probably not really kosher to blame Benton and Meyer overmuch.