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Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stainwas an untidy, overstuffed thing to begin with, a mad scramble to cram his every thought about Bill Clinton’s America (and a host of related isms — racism, sexism, ageism, classism) into 300-odd pages. It’s the story not just of Coleman Silk, the classics professor (played by Anthony Hopkins in this film adaptation) who impetuously asks the question “Do these people exist or are they spooks?” with regard to two absentee students who, it turns out, just happen to be black — with predictably disastrous consequences for their teacher. It’s also about the apparently exploitative affair Silk enters into with one Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a member of the college custodial staff less than half his age with a deranged Vietnam veteran of a jealous husband (Ed Harris). And about Silk’s developing friendship with his neighbor, the novelist and narrator and long-standing Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise). And that’s just the first 100 pages. So, it’s not exactly surprising that, in condensing the lion’s share of Roth’s manifold subplots and multiple antagonists into a cinematic frame of less than two hours, the movie (directed by Robert Benton from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer) develops a restless, shifty rhythm wherein, too often, only the story’s most incendiary, polemical aspects — the ones where you feel like Roth is chastising you from some post-liberal, Jewish-intellectual Parnassus — come bubbling up to the surface.
Yet, there are saving graces. Though The Human Stainis, in large part, brazenly miscast — Kidman as white trash, Sinise as a rather too young and healthy-looking recent prostate-cancer survivor, Hopkins for reasons that must not be disclosed here — Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody’s Fool) is so good at playing to his actors’ strengths that he nearly makes it all work. There is also the exquisite cinematography of the late Jean-Yves Escoffier (this was his last film), whose camera prowls around the corners of porches and bedrooms like a curious kitten and whose lighting basks haunted interiors in deceptively inviting, autumnal New England hues. But as both book and film, The Human Staincomes to vividest life in its extended flashbacks, which offer the most compelling exploration of Roth’s perennial themes of self-loathing and -reinvention. In the film, this is thanks particularly to young television actor Wentworth Miller, new this year to the movies (here and in the recently released Underworld) but whose name may one day shine as brightly as those now billed above it. As the young Coleman Silk — whether duking it out in an amateur boxing match or seducing his first real girlfriend in his first real apartment — Miller has a voice like polished oak and pantherlike movements that exude a sleek self-confidence. But he is likewise beset by that deep-set, self-doubting neurosis that so many Rothian protagonists carry with them. And it makes for an intriguing inner conflict; watching him, neither the camera nor we in the audience can break his distant yet hypnotizing gaze.
THE HUMAN STAIN | Directed by ROBERT BENTON | Screenplay by NICHOLAS MEYER, based on the novel by Philip Roth | Produced by GARY LUCCHESI, SCOTT STEINDORFF and TOM ROSENBERG | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide
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