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The Human Stain
2003 - R - 107 Mins.
Director: Robert Benton
Producer: Gary Lucchesi, Scott Steindorf, Tom Rosenberg
Written By: Nicholas Meyer, Philip Roth (novel)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller
Review by: David Trier
You have got to be kidding me.

I don’t generally do SPOILERS, but when the film’s based on a widely read book, when other critics feel free to discuss it, or when the whole damn movie is spoiled in and of itself, it has to be done. When esteemed professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) loses his career over an inadvertent racial epithet, he enlists the help of a reclusive novelist (Gary Sinise) to write his story. In the meantime, Silk becomes involved with a sexual and troubled woman over half his age (Nicole Kidman). When her crazy ex-husband (Ed Harris) becomes threatening, Silk for some reason decides he has to stop living a lie and come clean to at least somebody about his dark, not-so-dark, secret. He’s… BLACK?

This film has plenty of elements for success. It boats a stellar cast, with each star having earned worthy respect in their careers. It has an Oscar-winning director, a great cinematographer, and a well-respected author. It just doesn’t have a reason to be.

The Human Stain starts out promising, with a mysterious car accident and a flashback to the frustrating scenario of a teacher being made an unfair example of. Silk refers to some perpetually absent students as “spooks” and is later informed that their being African Americans puts the comment into a different context. Hopkins delivers a sturdy and convincing performance tempered only by Sinise’s smooth and cynical narration.

But where some plots might unfold, this one simply undresses. Silk shows up at Zuckerman’s house one day demanding literary help and – poof – they’re best friends. Silk gives a ride to a stranded janitor (an inexplicably hot one with perfect skin) and – poof – they’re red hot lovers.

Kidman gives another in a long resume of intensely emotional, just under-the-top, occasionally bubbling over, performances, but is incapable of exuding an authentic blue-collar demeanor. Hopkins looks flabby and silly naked in bed with her and the hot steamy scenes of their lovemaking come off as comical. Ed Harris finally shows up to catalyze a plot that seems to be headed nowhere. He gives a fiery and intimidating performance as the loose-cannon ex. But there is only one brief confrontation amongst the three of them and it is unclear which part of the story we’re supposed to be following.

While this torrid little affair with the janitor and this homoerotic friendship with the author are treading water, Silk offers us flashbacks (yes, once again, within a flashback) of his troubled youth and his big awful secret. The young Silk, well played by rising star Wentworth Miller, is a randomly pale-skinned African American – so much so that he is quick to see how much easier everything is in America when you’re white.

When his first true love (also well played by a sensual Jacinda Barrett) is willing to tolerate his self-proclaimed Judaism, but can’t handle discovering his “roots”, Silk decides to abandon his family and his identity. This eventually makes him a sad old man… or something.

Well, boo-hoo. What’s so great about Coleman Silk that I should care about a selfish lie making his life inconvenient? And why do people keep calling this a mystery when they show us how his life ends and who ends it? And why should I care about his lover’s problems when they have so little to do with the plot? And how should I even know what the plot is when it seems to stagger drunkenly from unlikely subplot to unlikely subplot?

People will undoubtedly be distracted by the fact that neither Hopkins nor the younger Miller have even slightly dark skin or any African American features short of being athletic. But that’s the least of this film’s problems. While the cast may be strong and their performances may be decent, the story is not one that draws sympathy and the way the story is told does not lead one to expect it to go anywhere – which it really doesn’t.

Previews have made this out to be an intense psychological thriller, using the one clip in which there is any real physical confrontation. But The Human Stain is not intense or thrilling, just mildly psychological. And how is it that “spooks” can be considered a racial epithet, but referring to being black as a HUMAN STAIN is not?!
Movie Guru Rating
A train wreck.  So bad some may find it unintentionally entertaining.
  1 out of 5 stars

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