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Movie Review:

"The Human Stain"

As a member of the Directors Guild of America, I often get invitations to movie screenings, especially this time of year when it's getting toward time to vote for awards (we vote for many DGA awards including Best Director, which is often an indicator of who will win the Best Director Oscar).

So I receive in the mail an invitation to a screening last night of "The Station Agent", playing at the Esquire Theater on Oak Street. It required an RSVP to a phone hotline at Miramax in New York, which I gave.

When we got to the theater the ticket agent waved us inside (I brought the letter), whereupon we found... no one. Usually there's someone in charge of these screenings. So we went up to the theater floors, where we found... the movie wasn't playing. Not on any of the six screens.

Having gone all the way there (and gotten a parking space for free within a block of the theater, almost impossible to do near Oak Street), we decided to see another movie, and the one with the time closest to what we were supposed to see was "The Human Stain", which I wanted to see anyway.

This movie got very good reviews in both the Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) and the Chicago Tribune (Michael Wilmington).

There is a major plot development that is a real spoiler if it's revealed. Ebert chose to reveal it; Wilmington didn't. I won't reveal it here.

Anthony Hopkins plays a professor and dean at a small liberal-arts college in Massachusetts, who is accused of racism because of an offhand remark he makes in a class. When you see this you'll see how ridiculous the charge is, and the movie does make a powerful statement against political correctness.

It forces him to resign (he was near retirement anyway), and his wife, angry about the charges, almost literally dies in his arms.

Then the fun starts, as he meets a novelist (Gary Sinise), who Hopkins wants to write his story, and also a woman (a nearly unrecognizable Nicole Kidman) who is more than she seems. Despite the age difference, they begin a love affair which, in this insular college community, further scandalizes the heretofore-untouchable reputation that Hopkins has built.

We find out, through flashbacks, about his life growing up, and I can't say more without giving away the crucial plot point. Suffice to say that as good an actor as Anthony Hopkins is, he's not totally believable in this role, and some of the other casting is equally odd. I did like Ed Harris as Kidman's ex-husband who apparently has post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Vietnam -- Harris is terrific at this type of role. We also learn about Kidman's life, and how these two people, one who seems at the top of life, the other at the bottom, find common ground.

The movie moves very slowly, but that's not a criticism; the story is absorbing and makes you think, and it does indeed make a powerful statement not only about political correctness, but about how racial issues have in many ways defined this country in the last 60 years, and are still doing so.

There's a great scene in which Hopkins and Sinise dance together; it's totally unexpected, but makes great sense in its context.

Digression: Gary Sinise graduated the same high school that I did, one year earlier. I didn't know him, but knew of him. He was active in the high school theater program, and had the general reputation of someone who was going places. Only a couple years after graduation, he, John Malkovich, and Laurie Metcalf, among others, founded the Steppenwolf Theater, and that started him on his way to becoming one of the best actors of our generation. I'd say he's perhaps the most famous person who ever attended my high school.

And I still do want to see "The Station Agent".

AYRating: *** 1/2