THE HUMAN STAIN (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Sexuality/Nudity

HS poster

Directed by: Robert Benton

Written by: Nicholas Meyer

(based on the novel THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Wentworth Miller

Some stories work better on the pages of a book. THE HUMAN STAIN might be one of these stories. The quiet understated tragedy has been kept mostly in tact for this film adaptation, with certain aspects focused on more than others. The performances from the notable cast members make the entire thing worth viewing, but the herky-jerky narrative detract from the overall quality. The performances may be good and the tone is true to Roth’s novel, but other aspects leaves a negative impact on THE HUMAN STAIN.

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Coleman Silk is the well-known Dean and a renowned professor at the local college. He’s carved out a name for himself and shaped his future from scratch. When he’s accused of racism from a misinterpreted comment in his classroom, his life hits a downward spiral with a sadness that he conveys wherever he goes. Spurred by the idiocy of false political correctness costing him his happiness and his job, Coleman makes friends with a writer (who also serves as the narrator to bookends of this story and the novel itself) and falls in love with a struggling young woman, name Faunia. Not everything is as it seems though and each character has their own tragic past event or secret. Coleman Silk’s hidden truth is one that he’s kept under wraps for his entire life.

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THE HUMAN STAIN is a depressing movie, much like the book is an absolute downer. The story itself is very interesting and rings true about the destruction that mankind bring upon each other in the bogus idea of appearance being everything. As Coleman Silk, Anthony Hopkins is riveting. Hopkins man played crazy cannibals, among other intelligent psychopaths, but he can fully embrace himself in roles that garner empathy from the viewer. I was rooting for Coleman Silk the whole time and knowing where the story was heading (having read the book) put everything into a deeper perspective. Gary Sinise plays Nathan serving as the narrator and Coleman’s best friend (occasionally brought in when it’s convenient for the script). Nicole Kidman plays Coleman’s love interest with a tragic past and Ed Harris plays her unhinged ex-husband. A young Wentworth Miller (best known for his role in PRISON BREAK and screenwriter of STOKER) plays a young Coleman Silk with varying degrees of success (during some scenes, he feels wooden).

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The plot itself could make for a great film, if it were executed with a top-notch script and director. Sadly, this is where THE HUMAN STAIN has some faults. One of these being Nicholas Meyer’s script. Scenes that are essential to the novel have been incorporated in certain ways. However, the transitioning between each flashback and cut to present day felt sloppy. There were almost no skillfully done transitions. It was just present day, past, cut to further in the past, cut back to present. It’s about as jarring as it sounds. Some stretches of the movie go far too long without integral characters appearing until it’s convenient to move things along. The quality of the entire film also feels like a TV soap opera version of Roth’s work. This might have been right at home with “Days Of Our Lives” or an original movie for Lifetime.

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The real kicker is that the performers all knock their roles out of the park, despite the quality of the overall project just being so-so. The heart was in the right place with this film, but the execution doesn’t feel nearly as coherent, powerful, and emotional as it should have been. I felt defeated and close to tears after I finished the novel. With this adaptation, I just felt like shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, the actors did a good job.” Having read the source material, I may sound a tad biased, but the truth is that I don’t think I would have grasped this film without reading the novel first. Outsiders to Roth’s work might find themselves completely bored and think of the whole movie as a melodramatic piece of junk.

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With a better script, THE HUMAN STAIN might have been an Oscar contender. The pacing of the film is jumbled as some parts drag and others seem far too rushed. It’s almost as if director Robert Benton put the scenes on shuffle, because they play out in a nearly random order. The performances are the only aspect that save this movie and make it worth a casual viewing. Fans of Roth’s novel (I am one), will be interested in seeing this story brought to the screen with big name actors. Those who haven’t read Roth’s work don’t need to make an effort to see THE HUMAN STAIN.

Grade: C+

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