Robert Benton’s The Human Stain should be a lesson to us all: it is possible to make a film creakier than Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) quits his job at a prestigious, politically correct university after he’s accused of making racist remarks. (By “spooks” he meant ghosts, not black people. Or did he?) Soon after his wife dies, Coleman befriends a local writer, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Senise), and starts dating the much-younger Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman). Together they regurgitate the past, and via hysterical flashback sequences the audience discovers that Coleman is a light-skinned African-American! Not only is Human Stain visually unimaginative, it’s shockingly stilted. (For a considerably more provocative examination of the same material, check out Douglas Sirk’s 1959 masterpiece Imitation of Life.) Except for one off-the-cuff remark about cock-sucking, you’d never know that beneath the film’s Oscar-bait veneer is an adaptation of a Philip Roth bestseller. Roth’s contemptible but genuinely human protagonists are enigmas wrapped in riddles wrapped in mysteries, walking-talking political paradoxes frustrated by sex and race. Roth’s acid-wit prose is replaced with schematic dialogue that embarrassingly strains to address the novel’s big themes. This is the second Oscar season in a row where Kidman shares a tender moment with a bird. As she stares longingly at the black creature, Kidman whispers beneath her tears, “A crow that doesn’t know how to be a crow.” Because Human Stain is so stylistically inert, the filmmakers keep the particulars of Coleman’s genetic code hush-hush for as long as they can. As a result, whatever humor carries over from the book is either betrayed or sure to be lost to anyone unfamiliar with the story. “How do you take it?” asks the teenage Coleman (Wentworth Miller), offering a cup of coffee to the nubile white girl who’s slowly falling in love with him. “Black is fine,” she replies. No it ain’t, but he’ll have to wait a few reels to find out. Equally head-thumping are the deliberate mythological contextualizations. Referred to at one point as Achilles on Viagra, Hopkins’s Coleman is not the naturally melodramatic monster Roth fans may be expecting. Rather than evoke the man’s racial abandonment as a grotesque political nightmare (the Clinton scandal is just background noise here), this mundane production merely settles for misplaced melodrama and cheap sympathy. When the young Coleman’s “father” keels over inside a train car, the last thing someone tells him is: “Boy, this fish is overcooked.” Indeed.
What went wrong here? The sound is fine, as is everyone's skin tone, and there's no evidence of color noise or edge enhancement throughout, but the constantly fluctuating black levels are embarrassing to behold, especially during night sequences. The blacks are so unstable as to suggest the print was run through nuclear waste. But considering the theme of the film, I suppose someone could make the case that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Nah.
The behind-the-scenes special included here is pretty unspectacular, save for some insights by Wentworth Miller, and a mini tribute to deceased director of photography Jean Yves Escoffier feels a wee bit half-assed. Rounding out the disc are trailers for Cold Mountain, The Barbarian Invasions, and People I know.
You know what they say: Once you go black, you never go back.