Being Human

1994, Movie, PG-13, 122 mins

Review

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Bill Forsyth's films are always idiosyncratic, but BEING HUMAN is so steeped in the director's interior dialogue with himself as to be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't happen to be Bill Forsyth. Robin Williams plays Hector, whose struggle to be human is told through a series of allegorical vignettes, each set in a different historical period.

A brief scene in the present introduces Hector as a long-absent father attempting a reconciliation with his children during a weekend at the beach. An unseen narrator (Theresa Russell) guides us through four separate stories, all of which, we are warned, are the "same story." In the first of these, set in a neolithic landscape, Hector and his family appear as cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers. A boatload of Norsemen arrives, capturing the woman and children; Hector escapes, cowering from the invaders and hurling stones at the departing boat. The second story is set in ancient Rome. Hector is the homesick slave of Lucinnius (John Turturro), an aristocrat who resolves to kill himself in order to avoid public disgrace. Lucinnius asks Hector to join him in a double suicide; Hector agrees after convincing Lucinnius to first grant him his freedom. Lucinnius falls on his dagger, but Hector flees the city.

Next we find Hector as a Briton returning home from the 100 Years War along with a wagon full of refugees. When they stumble into a pitched battle, a man posing as a priest (Vincent D'Onofrio) is moved by compassion to travel with the wounded soldiers. Hector, enchanted by an Italian widow, Beatrice (Anna Galiena), follows her back to her home town. The fourth episode shows Hector among a ragtag collection of Portuguese colonists shipwrecked on the North African coast. Indecisive Don Pedro (Hector Elizondo) is ill-prepared to lead the survivors to food and shelter, but after contact is made with local tribesmen, he agrees to take the colonists inland. Hector bids farewell to his estranged beloved, Ursula (Lizzy McInnerny), who now is betrothed to another man, Francisco (Jonathan Hyde), both of whom must stay behind with the sick and dying.

Finally, in the present, Hector is a New York slumlord with a prison record and continued problems with substandard buildings. He takes his children (Charles and Helen Miller) to the beach in order to "get to know each other again." After initial awkwardness, he asks his children for guidance. His daughter explains exactly what is wrong with him and how they might yet become a family. When Hector assures her that "Everything is going to be all right," she responds, "What do you mean 'going to be'--this is it! This is as good as it gets."

The resort to the tiresome device of wise children teaching muddled adults how to accept life and be happy is an indication of what went wrong here: too much has to be explained in the last reel. A film that made many Ten Worst lists--and, suprisingly, a few Ten Best--BEING HUMAN fails to construct its parallel narratives coherently, leaving dozens of loose ends, the combined weight of which overwhelm the allegorical story line. (In fairness, much of the confusion may be due to a major re-edit after disastrous previews--at Warner Bros.' insistence, the director cut 40 minutes, added narration and a happy ending, and virtually disowned the result in a whiny interview with Sight and Sound.) Forsyth's allegory isn't easily read, but the first episode seems to represent the break-up of Hector's domestic life; the second mirrors his involvement with a criminal businessman and subsequent imprisonment; the third is meant to illuminate his unsatisfying relationship with his new lover, Anna (Lorraine Bracco); the last parallels his ambivalent relationship with his ex-wife (Lindsay Crouse). Anyone looking for profundity here will probably be disappointed; according to Forsyth, the philosophical kernels buried in all this metaphorical wheezing are "we're all alone in life" and "nothing ever changes."

The hallmark of Forsyth's best comic work--eccentric characters caught up in off-beat, slightly surreal situations--is nowhere in evidence. As it stands, the script is utterly humorless, and appears to be a celebration of cowardice as much as a rumination on the inevitability of loss. Russell's narration is self-consciously arty, obscuring more than it illuminates. Williams's performance is uncertain at best and hammy at worst: low-key emotional drama is not his strength, and his mewling mock-sincerity quickly palls. Even worse is Turturro's hysterically yammering Lucinnius. (Adult situations.) leave a comment

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