White Trash Fantasy: The Human Stain

kidmantattooAfter a long absence, the fine director Robert Benton, who once made The Late Show and Places in the Heart (both favorites of mine), has returned with his first film in nearly six years, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, and I regret to say that it is as numbingly awful a prestige picture as one would ever want to dodge. There’s no love of film, no love of craft in sight. Roth’s uneven novel—about a black professor who passes for white at a liberal arts college, only to have his career undone by allegations of racism—worked best as a satire on political correctness run amok in academia. The scenarist Nicholas Meyer does away with all that. He drains every drop of comedy (and most of the anger) from Roth’s vision. The central defining scandal of the book barely registers here; Benton and Meyer are more interested in disrobing Nicole Kidman.

With no stops for delving into anything that might smack of felt life, the moviemakers hopscotch perfunctorily from one plot point to another. The professor resigns on cue, his wife collapses and dies on cue, he hops into bed with Nicole on cue, her psychotic ex-husband swears revenge, Nicole detonates her suppressed emotions, and so on and so on, all of it literal, weightless, unconvincing. Meyer reduces the novel’s most intriguing character, Delphine Roux, to a walk-on cipher. In the book, Delphine, an intellectual parasite who cruises for men in the reading room of the New York Public Library, ruins the professor partly out of her unconsummated attraction to him. Roth nails this specimen of academic predator; he gives Delphine a great comic sequence in which she emails a personals ad not to its intended destination, but to her department colleagues by mistake. She sabotages her own office in order to appear the victim of a prank, and Roth clearly parallels Delphine with the illiterate milkmaid whom the professor chooses for comfort. Any sensible reading of the novel would have informed Meyer and Benton that contrasting the two women was the path to take, and the same actress might well have played both roles.

As trailer park honey Faunia Farley, Kidman gives her worst performance to date—worse even than that folly The Hours wherein playing opposite the effortless Miranda Richardson rather exposed Kidman as a performer of humiliatingly limited range. Here, chain-smoking and sporting a snake tattoo, she’s tarted-up to resemble a demonic 12-year-old, and she speaks in terse snippets that attest to her lack of cultivation. Faunia’s longest sentence is probably, “You can’t handle fuckin’ someone you can’t take to a fancy restaurant!” As the disgraced professor and excited boyfriend, Anthony Hopkins looks passably black. Supplying Stain with exposition-laden voiceovers, Gary Sinise sounds drunk. – NPT

October 2003