In the Cut and The Human Stain (review)

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Out for a Stretch

It’s a sure sign that Oscar season has started when you find yourself yawning through yet another solemn, earnest, boring-as-hell bid at Important Filum. You know you’re in trouble when you get Serious Social Issues, De-Glammed Glamourpusses, and Creatively Justifiable Nudity all in the same movie. Oh, and if the film is trying to ride on the Oscar pedigree of its writer, director, or cast, that’s the surest sign that you should casually turn around, avoiding all eye contact, and tiptoe quietly away, lest you get guilted into enduring an ardent yet misguided attempt to earn the approval of you, Serious Film Buff. Do not applaud at the end, not even politely since they all tried so hard: it only encourages them.

Meg Ryan, for instance, wants you to forget that she’s made her millions being bubbly and sweetly confounded by unthreatening metrosexuals. So she died her blond tresses mousy brown (or let them revert back to their natural state) and frowns a lot and doesn’t cutely scrunch her nose once and reads depressing poetry to herself as Frannie, the lonely New York City schoolteacher and writer in In the Cut. I suppose she’s earned the right to be drab and miserable and serious and artistic after a decade as the spunky queen (or one of them) of fluffy romantic comedies, so it’s a pity that the film in which she chose to do so isn’t much worth her effort. Ryan (Kate & Leopold, Proof of Life) is fine in the role, I think, though it’s hard to tell when writer/director Jane Campion (screenplay Oscar for The Piano, no Oscar for The Portrait of a Lady), working from Susanna Moore’s novel, seems intent on making the entire film as drab and miserable as Frannie herself. Would a more energetic or fiercer performance from Ryan have made the film to come life? We’ll never know.

So what happens is that Frannie falls into a torrid affair with Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo: View from the Top, The Last Castle), who’s investigating a series of brutal murders in her Lower Manhattan neighborhood. It’s post 9/11, and the film is very aware of this, layering in hints of the trauma and recovery — a flash on a sidewalk memorial, for instance — and it’s all right on Frannie’s doorstep, just like one of those dead bodies was found right outside her window. It’s very symbolic of something or other, of the danger inherent and the disaster foreboding in her relationship with Malloy, I suppose. Cuz he ain’t no metrosexual: he’s a crude, openly manipulative brute, frankly sexual, not afraid to ask for what he wants but also well aware of what a woman needs to have a good time. And then there’s this: he himself may be the killer.

I gotta give props to the film for exploring carnality from a darker perspective than pop culture usually acknowledges is a part of the female experience. Frannie’s understanding of her own sexuality is challenged by this man, whom she doesn’t like but to whom she is physically attracted, and she indulges that physical attraction in ways that some will call daring. (You know what would be really daring? If Ryan actually looked like an ordinary 40-year-old woman in her nude scenes, not like a hard-bodied movie star who has an on-call personal trainer and works out three hours a day.) Separating out sex and romance from the female perspective like this is not something you see a lot of on film. But I gotta take those props right back for never letting me really believe in any of it. Ryan and Ruffalo fail to generate the heat Campion is obviously aiming for, and so instead In the Cut is never genuinely erotic or nasty or sexy like it should be. And the murder mystery aspect is rather wan, too, and eventually degenerates into exactly the kind of woman-in-peril flick that shows up on Lifetime every other week. Frannie, for all her adventures in the bedroom, ends up behaving just like the idiot women, walking into their own doom.

Nicole Kidman, one of the producers of In the Cut, was originally slated to play Frannie, but she dropped out, reportedly, when it became too intense a project to handle — with too grim an outlook on sexual relationships — in the midst of the collapse of her marriage. (It makes one wonder about Ryan’s choice of this role, post her Russell Crowe debacle, but that’s catty speculation for another day.) Instead Kidman ended up here, in The Human Stain… in a doomed relationship with Anthony Hopkins. Silly girl.

Oscar winner Hopkins’s (Hearts in Atlantis, Hannibal) Coleman Silk is a widower, a professor of classics in a New England college, and he’s his usual self: simmering repression beneath that staid, restrained exterior. But Oscar winner Kidman (The Hours, The Others) gets to be not only De-Glammed and Creatively Justifiable Nude, she also gets to do an accent and cut loose — artistically speaking, of course — as Faunia Farely, the unconventional cleaning lady with an unlikely past with whom Coleman, twice her age, starts an improbable affair. Tongues in their New England town start wagging, her crazy ex, Lester (Oscar nominee Ed Harris: Radio, A Beautiful Mind), goes crazier with jealousy, and Coleman’s pal Nathan Zuckerman (Oscar nominee Gary Sinise: Mission to Mars, Reindeer Games) pisses Coleman off with his warnings to be careful. Careful of what? Nathan ain’t talking about Lester’s mean temper but something ephemeral, something of the soul.

Just what that might be is perhaps lost in the translation from Philip Roth’s novel. It’s got something to do with Coleman’s secret past, something to do with Faunia’s secret past, something to do with intolerance on a grand public scale, but too much that’s vital to our involvement in and understanding of the tale occurs offscreen, and we’re left floundering to find an emotional foothold. All that business about tongues wagging? We’re merely told that — we never actually witness it ourselves. The big problem: Nathan narrates the story for us, tells it all from his perspective, even intimate events he couldn’t possibly have detailed knowledge of. Did Nathan, a twice-divorced writer who’s withdrawn from the world, invent some or all of the story as an antidote to his own loneliness?

I haven’t read Roth’s book so I’ve no idea what Nathan is all about there, but here, Nathan seems to have little function at all except as an unnecessary conduit for the story, a way to distance the audience from an essential immediacy, despite Sinise’s best intentions (he has to make do without artistic nudity or daring sexcapades or even a challenging accent). The possibility that none of what we’re seeing actually happened appears not to have occurred to screenwriter Nicholas Meyer or director Robert Benton (Oscar winner for Kramer vs. Kramer). What could have lent an intriguing undertone and alternative interpretation to a somewhat farfetched tale instead, in the absence of a more substantial grasp on Nathan, just leaves us at damaging odds with the film. We’re never sure what to believe, and that, unfortunately, isn’t the intention of anyone involved.

In the Cut
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong sexuality including explicit dialogue, nudity, graphic crime scenes and language
official site | IMDB

The Human Stain
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language and sexuality/nudity
official site | IMDB

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