Sunday, November 27, 2005

Being Human

I thought I'd tell you about this movie. It's probably one you've missed. I don't even remember it being in the theatres, but I found a copy of it in the delete bin at a local video store a couple of years ago, and from time to time I pull it out, dust it off, and let it roll.

Being Human is a series of five vignettes, set at various points in time, each bringing us a bit closer to modernity. Three things unite the threads: a fruity-voiced woman narrator, Robin Williams as the central character, and the name of that character being "Hector", regardless of the time or place.

Being Robin Williams

I should start off by pointing out that my feelings towards Robin Williams are kind of ambivalent... but I say this, in the long run, to praise the movie.

I loved Mork and Mindy as a kid. I think most people my age did. But as I grew into my teen years and Robin Williams started showing up in the movies, I found him irritating in anything he did in that typical frantic, hyperkinetic way of his. I have the same problem with Steve Martin and particularly Jim Carrey, for whom I have almost no use. These are all actors who are at their best when restrained, when the magic of their wry subtlety can be felt (think of Martin as Neal Page in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). Carrey, though, simply can't help mugging; even in The Truman Show. So this is my issue with these guys. Great, you can go off like a hyperglycemic six-year-old at the fair. Now show us you can act.

I also have a problem with Williams in roles where he plays a pathetic schlub. I can take this up to a point, after which I find it just gets cloying. And while he does have a few roles like this in Being Human, the vignettes are short enough that he's not given enough rope with which to hang himself. If he's down and out for ten minutes, he's on his way up the next. That works well. But I found the much-praised What Dreams May Come virtually unwatchable (for this and so many reasons). Way too much rope.

Getting Back to Being Human...

This movie's finely crafted. As I said, it features five stories of increasing modernity that illustrate some of the issues that, while usually particular to their time, also plug into emotions that span time and unite human beings no matter when they lived. The stories range from the first, set in neolithic Europe, in which a man and his family, living in isolation by a lake or sea, are set upon by seafaring mauraders (among whom is Robert Carlisle, making an early appearance before fame caught up with in Trainspotting). The second is the story of a slave in Roman times, loyal to his rather oblivious master, who, when his master's fortunes turn sour, is suddenly expected to take his own life at his master's side. The third is set in Medieval Europe, and tells the story of a man on way home from some war, linking up with a widowed woman whose language he does not speak, and having to make a choice about whether to stay with her family or press on to return to his own. The fourth is set in the 15th or 16th century, telling the tale of a weaselly Portuguese minor aristocrat, shipwrecked on the African coast with dozens of others, including the woman he spurned. And finally, the story of a man, set in contemporary New York City, rebuilding his relationship with his estranged children.

Every one of these stories is eminently watchable. They average about twenty minutes each, though I think the last story is probably slightly longer. Of the five, my favourites are the story of the Roman slave and the divorced father in New York. If I had to pick one as my favourite overall, it would probably be the story of Hector, slave to Roman businessman Lucinnius, played with hilarious self-absorbtion by John Turturro (whom I loved as Pete in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show). A word here about the narration... in most movies, expository narration is just anathama. But in this movie, it works. It feels less like you're being spoonfed "here's now to feel now" notes as hands moulding your emotions into finer vessels. We can all imagine just how awful being a slave would be in the abstract. But we're remote from the experience. It really helps frame just what that actually, practically means when, at the start of the episode, the narrator says, "There was a man. He had a bed, he had a woman, and he had a child. But it was not his bed, not his woman, not his child. Everything he had, even his smallest humiliation, belonged to his master." This is the case; the bed is the property of Lucinnius, the woman is also a slave, and the child is Lucinnius's son, who has an obvious affection for Hector. Lucinnius is a trader, trying to make his way out of debt. When his cargo is lost at sea in a storm, his creditors make it clear they expect him to commit suicide. Lucinnius then informs Hector that as his most loyal slave, Hector ought to commit suicide alongside him. How will it look if he doesn't? The story moves forward from there, dealing with Hector's dilemma.

The easiest story to plug into is the last, set in modern New York City. Here, Hector is a businessman in partnership with a friend. It turns out he met the friend in prison when he was serving time for accounting irregularities, during which time his wife divorced him, and he became estranged from his children. The story finds him reasonably prosperous, working to better his lot, courting a woman who counts on him but is frequently let down as Hector juggles too many balls. It opens with him taking abuse from a woman who, while seated on the toilet, has crashed through the floor of an apartment building owned by his partner. From there, he is asked to look after a small but important matter by his girlfriend, but which slips through the cracks as he picks up his son and daughter to spend time with them at the shore. From a shaky start, his relationship with his kids is slowly rebuilt as they rediscover the things they had in common, discover new touchstones, and the adolescent daughter comes up with the means to head off the upcoming (and no doubt terminal) trouble with Hector's girlfriend. It's a wonderful piece about honesty and healing, and it nicely tops off the movie. In some regards, it bears a remarkable similarity to the arc of the recent War of the Worlds (less, of course, the murdering aliens and general end-of-the-world thing).

Being Human is a nice little gem set in velvet. It's not easy to find, but if you should come across it, it's worth the time to see.

1 comment:

James said...

I also have a problem with Williams in roles where he plays a pathetic schlub.

Someone once said, "The world would be a better place if Robin Williams would just stop trying to make the world a better place."