The reason I handed Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003) over to my then-associate critic Marci Miller for review is lost in some dark corridor of memory. But I did, and since nothing about the film sounded all that compelling, I never got around to seeing it — till now. I was hoping to be either pleasantly surprised by how good it was, or utterly appalled by how cack-handedly awful it was. Instead, I found myself in the rather dreary world of the Perfectly Fine. Oh, true, Robert Benton’s direction is of the old-fashioned Oscar-bait school of filmmaking — so finely tooled that it feels like it ought to be bound in Morocco leather and placed on a display case in a department store for a last minute Christmas gift. (The scene where the camera pulls back in the stateliest possible manner through a doorway when Anthony Hopkins’ wife dies is almost funny — especially when her decorously draped arm goes limp so that even the dimmest viewer will realize she’s dead — and that clearly wasn’t the intention.)
Other than that, the story is OK — hinged, as it is, on the irony that a black college professor (Hopkins) who’s been passing for white most of his life would be fired for using the word “spooks” in the obviously ghostly sense. This assumes you can buy Hopkins as a black man — which is actually a little easier than it sounds. His drifting into a relationship with a much younger woman (Nicole Kidman) — from a supposedly lower class — also works pretty well. But the problem is that the story — especially when her psycho ex-husband (Ed Harris) comes on the scene as The Menace — is basically soapy trash and needed to be approached as such. Instead, everyone — except maybe Hopkins who is in his scenery-chewing mode — seems to believe this is very literary and Important. In truth it’s mish-mash of Golden Boy boxing cliches and Imitation of Life racial woes with a May-December romance (enlivened with Viagra) and a psycho thrown in. Almodovar would have known what to do with it. So would Lee Daniels. Robert Benton — not so much. Hopkins is entertaining. Kidman is strikingly good. Wentworth Miller is exceptional as Hopkins’ younger self. Ed Harris is twitchy. And Gary Sinise is less obnoxious than usual as a kind of sub-Nick Carraway observer. But that’s about it.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Human Stain Sunday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.