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Human Nature

A fabulous furry nature writer, a repressed behavioral scientist, an adult wild child and a beautiful schemer comprise a bizarre romantic quadrangle in this strenuously quirky comedy about civilization, basic instincts and the games lovers play. Taunted because of her hirsutism (think JoJo the dog-faced boy), 12-year-old Lila Jute retreated into the woods and filled her hours by recording her thoughts. The adult Lila's (Patricia Arquette) scribbling eventually makes her a best-selling author (popular with those who prefer nature at second hand) and she decides to reenter the domesticated world, driven by a hunger for the company of men. A little rusty in the dating skills department, Lila allows her electrologist, Louise (Rosie Perez) — a hairy girl's best friend is always her electrologist — to fix her up with emotionally crippled behaviorist Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), who's dedicated his career to teaching lab mice to eat with forks. Tormented by genital underendowment and a childhood defined by harsh lessons about appropriate cutlery, Nathan has never noticed the come-hither looks cast his way by comely French lab assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) and takes to the carefully shaved Lila with the heedless fervor of the pathologically insecure. While on a nature hike, the couple discovers a feral fellow (Rhys Ifans) — he was raised by a loony father who thought himself an ape — and Nathan resolves to transform this naked, grunting, filthy brute into the epitome of a gentleman. Diapered, caged, wired with electrodes and dubbed Puff (because Gabrielle once "'ad a sweet leetle mongrel doggie named Puff"), the ape-man's transformation begins. That the great experiment ends badly is a given: The story is told in a series of flashbacks, and of the three narrators, Puff is addressing a government committee, Lila is in a prison-issue jumpsuit and Nathan is seated in an all-white room, a small hole leaking blood onto his pale forehead. Written by Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), this superficially surreal film is in fact a surprisingly straightforward fable. Director Michel Gondry is known for his music videos for Björk and others, and his trademark whimsical style is evident in sequences like Lila's musical interlude in an artificial woodland set. But overall the film feels forced and awkward, as though it's trying too hard to be weird, culty and profound: Nathan's prescription for civilized behavior — "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do" — is among the more subtle bits of dialogue.