The Human Stain

2003, Movie, R, 104 mins

Review

HUMAN STAIN, THE
starstarstarstar
While director Robert Benton refrains from milking the big, CRYING GAME-sized twist at the center of this weak abbreviation of Philip Roth's expansive 2000 novel, keeping the story's secret makes discussing the film's real subject — and the movie's shortcomings — difficult. Suffice it to say that the story revolves around Jewish professor of classics Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), whose carefully constructed career at prestigious Athena College quickly unravels when a harmless remark made in front of a crowded classroom is blown out of all context and proportion. Joking aloud about two perpetually absent students, Silk wonders whether they might be "spooks," unwittingly lighting the sparks of controversy that are fanned into a firestorm when one of those spectral students lodges a complaint; unbeknownst to Silk, the "spooks" to whom he alluded so casually are black. Silk — who made many enemies among his colleagues when, as dean of faculty, he aggressively transformed Athena from a Berkshires backwater into a top-tier school — finds few supporters rallying to his side, and in a fit of righteous pique, he quits. His wife (Phyllis Newman) suffers a fatal stroke from the stress, which sends Silk crashing into the life of reclusive, twice-divorced novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), whom Silk demands write a book that will expose this outrage to the rest of the world. Zuckerman demurs, but the two become fast friends, and it's not long before Silk confesses that he's been having an affair with Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), a local woman who's not only half his age, but works as a cleaning woman at the college. Life's been rough on Faunia: She not only lost both her children in a terrible accident, but is being tormented by her psycho Vietnam-vet ex-husband (Ed Harris), who's now gunning for Silk. It's a testament to Kidman's talents that she manages to bring Faunia to life, but Hopkins and Sinise are woefully misused. (In a particularly incongruous bit of casting, square-jawed actor Wentworth Miller, who looks nothing like Hopkins at any age, portrays Silk's younger self in the film's many flashbacks.) Roth deliberately set his book in 1998, when on-campus culture wars and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal contributed to what Roth termed America's "enormous piety binge," and it's through this scrim of indignation that he attempted to deal with loaded issues of race, racism and, once again, Jewish identity. But there's so much less to the film than the novel: Nicholas Meyer's screenplay fails to capture the intricate subtleties of its subject and replaces Roth's moral scope with a moralizing tone. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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