Human Nature

Charlie Kaufman wrote the whacked-out script for “Being John Malkovich” and has followed it up with “Human Nature,” a story just as daft and surreal, though not quite as funny.

Rhys Ifans — the odd roommate in “Notting Hill,” the reprobate soccer player in “The Replacements,” one of the weird townsfolk in “The Shipping News” — delivers a breakthrough performance as Puff, a boy who was raised not by apes, but by his insane father, who THOUGHT he was an ape. Puff lives in the forest, alone since the death of his father, until one day he is discovered by nerdy scientist Nathan (Tim Robbins) and his nature-loving girlfriend Lila (Patricia Arquette). Nathan’s plan, a la “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan” (and, more than a little, “Young Frankenstein”), is to take Puff back to the city and civilize him.

Nathan and Lila come with their own baggage, though. Nathan is obsessed with table manners, having been bred that way by his ridiculously anal retentive parents. Lila is cursed with more body hair than Robin Williams, and alternates between embracing her differences and trying to shave them off. Both are socially awkward and prone to embarrassing behavior.

It should not be a surprise that in “civilizing” Puff, Nathan takes the humanity right out of him. The film is about accepting who we are — hirsute, chimp-like or sloppy, we’re all in this crazy world together, my brother. Let it be.

Fortunately, this message is driven home precisely but not overbearingly. This is a comedy, and a funny (though seldom hilarious) one. Director Michel Gondry has an appealing visual style that perfectly complements Kaufman’s outrageous script; it is pleasant to note that Spike Jonze, who directed “Being John Malkovich,” serves here as a producer. Gondry, Kaufman and Jonze should always work together, as their minds seem to be from the same very, very odd universe.

Robbins and Arquette are perfectly good in their roles, taking a backseat to the inspired madness of Ifans. Praise be that Ifans knows when to be restrained and subtle; can you imagine the forced lunacy that would occur if Jim Carrey were to play a jungle man?

This is a trippy, enjoyable social satire with enough goofiness to please audiences without so much oddness that it freaks them out.

B+ (; R, frequent harsh profanity, a lot of non-sexual nudity.)