As in the Spike Jonze-directed and more cerebral Malkovich, Kaufman draws a fervid love square. Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) is a pretty lady with severe hirsutism, a source of shame and near-suicide until she decides to celebrate her fuzzy booty and go live, as it were, "in nature." But soon she discovers in herself a hunger for man love and begrudgingly returns to man's world.
Shacking up with an excessively meticulous behavioral scientist named Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), Lila represses her wild ways, practicing surreptitious full-body shaving and honoring Nathan's mania for using the correct fork. Further compromises become inevitable, however, after an innocent sylvan hike leads the couple to a naked wild man (Rhys Ifans) who appears to be the bastard spawn of Dr. Zaius or Tom Petty. When the apelike fellow is whisked back to Nathan's lab for carefully regimented research and training, he's dubbed "Puff" by Nathan's frisky French assistant, Gabrielle (Miranda Otto). What ensues is a lot of sneaky, scamming love action at cross purposes designed to reveal the flimsiness of terms such as "natural" and "innocent."
Kaufman has fashioned his story as something of a nonlinear mystery (smartly cut by editor Russell Icke). We know early on, for instance, that Puff is testifying before the Supreme Court and that Nathan has been shot in the head. Keeping us a step ahead of the characters gives Kaufman breathing room to throw down a wide variety of outlandish tics, ranging in tone from cuddly (fantasies of nursing babies) to cruel (shock collars). What could simply have been a nebbish's reply to Darwin becomes a grand farce of desire and deceit.
As Puff, who claims to have been raised by an ape but was in fact raised by an insane father who believed himself an ape, Ifans is literally freaking hilarious, smeared with feces one minute and speaking the Queen's English the next. His musky aura (and seedy secret life) plays against Arquette's fractured nymph struggling to balance her delusions and lusts with Robbins' threadbare romantic idealism. Once Otto's wanton advances are mixed into the mess, it is -- happily -- anybody's game.
Known for his music videos for Björk, Gondry greets the material with a blithe and generous playfulness, almost a storybook vibe. Everything from Puff's Lucite cell to Gabrielle's boudoir is presented dreamily, slightly beyond reality. This effect carries over to the office of Lila's electrolycist and confidante, Louise (Rosie Perez), and to the dining room of Nathan's obscenely fastidious parents (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place). Kaufman's pleasingly absurd dialogue ("I'm sorry." says Nathan, eyeing his parents' newly-adopted son. "Could somebody please tell me who this boy is?") lets Gondry relax and revel in the visual details. Featuring mice practicing table manners and monkey men in smoking jackets, the movie would be nearly as amusing in total silence.
Although there are whiffs of social philosophy throughout, Human Nature practically writes off the issue of civilization versus wildness. Kaufman and Gondry instead bait us with constant zaniness, then sneak up on us with romantic melancholy and even crushing pathos. You'll laugh a lot, but not without a sense of animal desperation.