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'The Human Stain'

Miscast roles put blemish on 'Human Stain'

Friday, October 31, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The Human Stain" sprawls across the screen, trying to cover too much of a canvas, jumping back and forth to various episodes from two different periods in the life of its central character. As a result, the intimate relationships tend to obscure the movie's big themes, and vice versa.

 
 

'THE HUMAN STAIN'

RATING: R for language and sexuality/nudity.

STARRING: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman.

DIRECTOR: Robert Benton.

   
 

But the blame also extends to the film's questionable casting in a story where the question of precise identity is paramount.

Based on the novel by Philip Roth, "The Human Stain" tells the story of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a classics professor at a New England college. In class one day, he wonders if two students who haven't shown up all term are "spooks." He ends up in hot water because the students are black and accuse him of a racial slur, even though Silk had never laid eyes on them.

No one can appreciate the irony of the situation except for Silk, because no one, including his wife, knows the secret he has kept for half a century. He is a light-skinned black man passing as a white man.

The most heart-rending scenes in the movie deal with the effect of that choice upon his mother (Anna Deavere Smith) and siblings, and upon his relations with them. These come in the latter part of the film, which cuts back and forth between the present day and flashbacks to Silk as a young man (where he is played by Wentworth Miller, a former Sewickley resident who has a biracial background).

But first, the movie must deal with the repercussions of Silk's remark. Left alone and unemployed, he befriends a younger writer, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), whose own problems have led him to become a recluse. He also meets Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), a janitor at the school with a wild streak, an indiscriminate taste in men (she's at least 30 years younger than Silk) and her own hidden past.

Their love affair ignites a scandal in town, as well as the enmity of Faunia's ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), who has some wires touching someplace. Can Coleman and Faunia find solace in each other, or at least enough peace to acknowledge the secrets that they have utilized to hide their true selves?

By the time we find out, it seems anticlimactic -- in part because the movie begins with a flash-forward that presages the film's denouement. But the main problem is that we care less about what happens to Coleman and Faunia than we do about what happens to Coleman and his family.

His decision to pass is the crucial moment in the movie. Everything else reverberates from it. Miller plays young Silk as a man with a hard veneer trying to keep his emotions in check, but we can tell that he's roiling inside. He knows the consequences of his decision, for good and for ill, and he has mastered the rationalization. But his anger bursts out in a brutal scene where, as an amateur boxer, he pummels his opponent, a black man with darker skin.

Once that occurs, how can we keep suspending our disbelief that this conflicted soul could turn into someone like Anthony Hopkins, complete with Welsh accent? How can we buy the notion of Nicole Kidman playing a crude-mouthed janitor, even if that was not her original lot in life? Do we really want to watch this May-December couple in bed together?

And as long as we're posing questions, does the Zuckerman character serve any purpose beyond that of narrator? He's Roth's surrogate in this and other novels, but in the movie he can't even serve that purpose. He does the voiceovers that punctuate the film, and he gets a key scene at the end. Otherwise, he's pretty much a sounding board for the other characters. For this, they needed Gary Sinise?

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer has earned his wings for the three best "Star Trek" movies as well as for such clever entertainments as "Time After Time" and "The Seven Percent Solution." Director Robert Benton co-wrote "Bonnie and Clyde" and directed such superior films as "The Late Show" and "Kramer vs. Kramer."

Even for them, however, "The Human Stain" proves intractable.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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