Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is not the kind of book that makes you want to shout, “I can’t wait to see the movie!” Dense with ideas about race, sex, political correctness, and post-Vietnam America, it’s deeply ruminative—a chorus of interior monologues. The movie that director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer have made from the novel resembles a procession of dreary tableaux. Roth’s impasto has been thinned out.
What remains of his conception in The Human Stain still resonates, faintly. It is the season of the Clinton-Lewinsky circus, and sanctimony is rampant in academia. Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is a seventyish classics professor who loses his job at a small Massachusetts college after he is accused of uttering a racial slur in class. Although he fights the unfairness of this accusation tooth and claw, he is left disgraced. Coleman might have saved himself if he had admitted a secret: Since he turned his back on his family as a young man, he has hidden the fact that he is black. Light-skinned enough to “pass,” Coleman has told no one his true identity and lived his life as a Jew. He’s a walking contradiction—a master dissembler who appears blazingly forthright. When Coleman takes up with a local janitor, Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), he clutches the affair as his last best hope. Faunia is looked down upon by the community as trailer trash, and her crazed Vietnam-vet ex-husband (Ed Harris) is stalking the couple. Coleman courts the danger and opprobrium. He seems hellbent on self-destruction.
At least that’s what we’re meant to believe. What comes across is something else again. Accomplished as he is, Anthony Hopkins has always seemed a bit hollowed-out as an actor; behind his fits and fevers often lies a moody blankness. Here, some of this works in his favor. He’s a cipher playing a cipher. But at some point, we need to see the torque in Coleman’s psychological profile. The movie, as opposed to the book, takes a rather dull view of Coleman’s deception—that he did it because he chose not to live a racially defined life. But there must have been some real cruelty in the way he hoodwinked his friends, family, lovers. Very little of this comes through. And Coleman’s need for spiritual restitution ought to spark his affair with Faunia. What we get is more like a testimonial for Viagra.
Coleman and Faunia are not only insufficiently drawn; they’re miscast. Hopkins doesn’t even bother to drop his British accent while Kidman’s idea of playing working-class is to get all snarly and angular. The film keeps cutting back from the present to the professor’s boyhood past, but Wentworth Miller, who does a credible job as the young Coleman, bears almost no similarity to Hopkins. And so we appear to be watching two disparate stories periodically fused together. As Coleman’s friend Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego and the film’s narrator, Gary Sinise plays the reclusive writer as yet another cipher. It’s a thankless, fill-in-the-gaps role. Movies about “passing” may seem anachronistic—redolent of Pinky and the late forties—but that needn’t be the case. Roth was making the point that race is at the heart of the American tragedy, and will continue to be. Those who see Coleman as the relic of a bygone era aren’t looking very carefully at the world around them. Roth’s deep-dish introspection would be difficult for any movie to achieve, but with the right cast and more passion, we might have been pulled right into Coleman’s psychic prison. The Human Stain isn’t a movie of ideas, and it’s too inert to be a probing character study. No stain is left behind, just a wan watermark.
Another species of con man surfaces in Shattered Glass, which is about Stephen Glass, the young New Republic staff writer who dazzled his editors with journalism that, in 1998, was revealed to have been largely fabricated. Writer-director Billy Ray, drawing on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, doesn’t go the sanctimonious All the President’s Men route; his movie is more about what happens when a well-oiled system breaks down. Ray takes the entirely reasonable approach that everyone—even the sharpest minds in journalism—is susceptible to the scam. The only charge leveled at The New Republic is that it overindulged a writer so patently on the make. Shortly after the film begins, the popular Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) is fired as the magazine’s editor and replaced by Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who is widely disliked by his staff. And yet it is Lane who ends up rescuing the magazine’s reputation. He’s the straitlaced functionary as hero. As Glass’s inventions come to light, Lane realizes exactly what is at stake and what he must do. His treatment of Glass is eminently fair and, ultimately, ruthlessly decisive.
Sarsgaard is terrific at conveying Lane’s growing horror about what he knows in his bones to be true—but can’t quite accept. His good reporter’s instincts keep overriding his optimism, and when he takes Glass on an informal field trip to confirm a story’s authenticity and comes up empty, it’s as if he’d entered his own private twilight zone. Soon it will become startlingly public. Shattered Glass is really Lane’s story, which is mainly due to Sarsgaard’s performance. As Glass, Hayden Christensen, of Star Wars, is too self-consciously callow a careerist. Christensen doesn’t have any sociopathology in his soul; he’s a nice kid playing a (screwed-up) nice kid. The anatomy of a con artist is beyond his psychological scope, and it may be beyond Billy Ray’s as well. He’s so eager to be fair-minded about everything and everyone that you can’t help thinking he’s a patsy, too. If he directed a movie of Othello, he’d probably try to make us feel warm and fuzzy about poor, misunderstood Iago.
In brief: Liz Garbus’s documentary Girlhood (at the Quad) is a fine example of what a filmmaker can achieve when she takes on a great subject and lets it play out with all the respect and attention it deserves. The lives of two girls in Maryland’s Waxter juvenile facility for violent offenders are followed for three years. Shanae was gang-raped at 10, got into drugs, and a year later stabbed a friend to death. Megan ran away from ten different foster homes before attacking another foster child with a box cutter. What they make of their young lives is both harrowing and inspiring.