Animal Crackers

Fields gets to fleece numerous suckers and even kick a dog, but his misanthropy is considerably diluted by his affection for little Sally, the orphaned circus girl who grows up to be Griffith's last protégée, Carol Dempster. Sally, who is characterized in her introductory title as "a strange whimsical creature, part tomboy, part woman," is a sort of failed Mae Marsh—coyly forward, impish yet forlorn, prone to hysterical bouts of solo dancing.

Griffith may have infused Sally with memories of his own early career as an itinerant performer, but the movie is far more driven by his trademark sentimentality (and opposition to Americans even more puritanical than he). More a romance—or even melodrama—than a comedy, Sally is minor Griffith, but it demonstrates that, whatever the ostensible genre, he remained (and, pace Steven Spielberg, remains) the master manipulator of human emotion.


Her royal vivacity: Dunst in The Cat's Meow
photo: Richard Foreman
Her royal vivacity: Dunst in The Cat's Meow

Details

The Cat's Meow
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Written by Steven Peros, from his play
Lions Gate
Opens April 12

Sally of the Sawdust
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Written by Forrest Halsey, from the play Poppy by Dorothy Donnelly
Film Forum
April 14

Human Nature
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Fine Line
Opens April 12

More unfunny comedy: Human Nature is an overemphatic, would-be wacky, ultimately tedious sex farce directed by video ace Michel Gondry from a script that Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, seems to have pulled out of his drawer.

As its title suggests, Human Nature is a movie with big ideas (derived mainly from Rousseau and Freud) about our species's defining drives. Each of the three protagonists is intimately concerned with just what it is that separates us from the beasts. Afflicted since puberty with a surplus of body hair, Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) flees the sideshow for the jungle to become a nature-loving hermit until the miracle of electrolysis allows her to have a relationship with Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a 35-year-old virgin—perhaps named for the former owner of Universal Pictures—who is working out his own childhood programming by teaching table manners to mice. Nathan hates nature, but humors Lila by accompanying her to the woods. There, they stumble upon a naked ape boy (Rhys Ifans, made up to resemble the American Taliban), and bring him back to Bronfman's lab—where he is named "Puff" by the scientist's little French assistant (Miranda Otto).

Nathan civilizes Puff, who learns to appreciate opera, drink wine, and imitate Peter Pan. Still, the ape boy persists in rubbing up against whatever woman wanders within his range. It's either a tribute to or an indictment of the movie that the funniest gag is Puff's refusal to stop grinding against a projected image despite repeated electric shocks administered by training collar. The acid test is dinner at Hooters, after which Nathan acquaints him with the essence of the human condition: "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do."

This gloss on Civilization and Its Discontents aside, some elements of Human Nature are recognizably by the author of Being John Malkovich—mainly the sense of rotating relationships. The movie is framed as a murder mystery—it has a few parallels to The Cat's Meow and an even lighter burden of consequence. It also features a fair amount of naked Arquette, although the invisible hair shirt she wears is more disconcerting than Gwyneth Paltrow's body suit in Shallow Hal.

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