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All the major players involved with In The Cut seem to be trying to shed their histories through the project. Jane Campion, who stumbled after such early art-house successes as Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, and The Piano, here seems determined to prove she can make a commercial American genre movie. Meg Ryan is trying to throw over her piece-of-fluff image by playing a sometimes naked and nakedly blemished 40-ish woman in the throes of sexual liberation. And indie star Mark Ruffalo is making a play for mainstream heartthrob status. Only Ruffalo comes out for the better in a film that oscillates between Campion’s desire to do a feminist character study and the rigidly misogynistic requirements of the slasher movie.

Although its screenplay was adapted by Susanna Moore and the usually literate Campion from Moore’s novel of the same name, In the Cut is a narrative mishmash. Ryan stars as Frannie, a Manhattan creative-writing teacher uncomfortable in her relationships with men. She’s interrogated by Malloy (Ruffalo), a police detective investigating a murder in her neighborhood. The pair quickly become involved in a relationship that affords Frannie orgasmic fulfillment she hasn’t previously experienced. But after a visit to her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Frannie is attacked in one of the innumerable garbage-strewn alleys that make up much of the geography of In the Cut. She becomes apprehensive about all the men in her life: Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), a student obsessed with serial killer John Wayne Gacy, John (Kevin Bacon), a neurotic ex-boyfriend who’s been stalking her since the end of their brief affair, and even Malloy himself.

In interviews, Campion has identified Klute as an inspiration for In the Cut, but although Ryan sports the same shag hairstyle Jane Fonda wore in that film, her character is Kleenex-thin compared with Fonda’s savvy, complicated Bree Daniel. Frannie is styled as educated and intelligent, but she somehow still commits most of the pinheaded blunders typical of the serial-killer-movie heroine—such as isolating herself when she’s most vulnerable to mayhem. And although Ryan has shelved her trademark twinkles and gummy grins as she bares her breasts and generally wobbles through unflattering lighting and photography, her acting lacks the resourcefulness and intensity that might make Frannie something more than a conventional damsel in distress. She’s anxious, she perspires, but it doesn’t constitute a performance.

Then again, even Fonda at the apex of her career couldn’t have figured out a way to enliven In the Cut’s self-conscious screenplay and direction. Only one of the main characters isn’t caught up in the script’s net of obvious red herrings—which quickly alerts even the most credulous of viewers to his identity as the culprit. To fend off accusations that she’s slumming with a project in which several females are forced to wear engagement rings before they’re beheaded, Campion lathers the narrative with arty touches: distracting sepia-toned, silent-movie flashbacks delineating Frannie’s parents’ relationship; a motif of flower-petal imagery; excerpts of poems by Dante, Keats, and García Lorca; and allusions to Virginia Woolf—all capped by a climax staged at…a lighthouse. And though the sex scenes emphasize Frannie’s gratification rather than Malloy’s, they seem just gesturally feminism in a narrative driven by the slaughter of women.

In the Cut does offer a few redeeming elements. Ruffalo, hitherto known for his James Dean-ish antihero roles in You Can Count On Me and XX/XY, convincingly switches gears as the soft-spoken, cocksure Malloy; it’s a tremendously masculine and confident performance that makes the usual leading men seem like high-school class presidents. Cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer David Brisbin create a clammy Manhattan reminiscent of Seven’s rancid metropolis. Beebe employs an uncommonly restrictive depth of field to induce a sense of claustrophobia, reinforced by Brisbin’s mousy color schemes, which appear to seep from the characters’ drab dwellings into their sweat-slicked complexions.

But Seven was a better and more sure-handed film, unconflicted and unremitting in its dank view of humanity. Campion’s thriller, by contrast, is constructed around an intelligent and self-controlled heroine who suddenly, every five minutes, acts like a victim from Halloween 5. And Campion’s literary allusions are simply fig leaves that scarcely conceal the nakedly distasteful spirit of In the Cut. To judge from this evidence, she has a lot to learn about selling out.

In 1996, Nicole Kidman, who starred in Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, optioned the screen rights to In the Cut. Luckily for her, she eventually opted out, retaining only a co-producer credit. But Kidman should have been equally wary of signing on as the star of The Human Stain, Robert Benton’s screen version of Philip Roth’s acclaimed novel. Not only has Benton’s career been a disappointment for decades, but Roth’s book’s plot hinges on a surprise revelation that comes midway through the narrative. (Readers unfamiliar with the novel should be warned: Spoilers below.) The film exposes the plodding plot structure of Roth’s book without folding in much of his smart, muscular prose style.

Like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, The Human Stain opens with a vehicle plunging into a frozen body of water. The doomed occupants are former New England college dean Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) and his young mistress, Faunia Farely (Kidman). Then the action, narrated by Roth’s recurrent character Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), flashes back to 1998, at the height of Monica mania.

During a classics seminar, Silk idly asks his class about two enrolled students who have yet to show up for classes. “Do these people exist, or are they spooks?” he says.

The absent undergraduates turn out to be African-Americans, who lodge a complaint, accusing Silk of making a racial slur. In the grip of political correctness, the faculty inquiry board members—many of them friends whom he hired—refuse to defend him. Filled with rage, he resigns his positions and storms home to inform his wife, Iris (Phyllis Newman), who literally keels over after hearing the news. An hour into the film, Benton springs Roth’s big whammy: Silk is actually a light-skinned black man who, for reasons explained in additional flashbacks, has spent four decades passing as white.

Several months after Iris’ death, Silk visits Zuckerman, a blocked writer living in exile in a cabin near the college, and tries to interest him in turning his saga into a novel. The pair become friends and collaborators, and one evening Silk confides to Zuckerman that he’s begun a Viagra-fueled affair with Faunia, a divorced woman half his age who works as a custodian. As their relationship deepens, the ill-matched couple are dogged by Faunia’s ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), an unstable Vietnam vet who blames Faunia for the accidental deaths of their two children.

Although he gives a predictably eloquent performance, Hopkins is absurdly miscast as a black man—a problem further exacerbated by the presence of Wentworth Miller, who plays the younger Silk in flashback sequences. Apart from tiny moles significantly placed on both men’s temples, the two actors don’t bear the slightest physical or vocal resemblance—especially with regard to chest hair. Kidman does better with her atypical role, convincingly discarding her usual icy persona to portray the blunt, gum-chewing Faunia. And The Human Stain sporadically comes to life in several intimate episodes, notably Coleman and Faunia’s taboo-rattling, cross-generational bedroom encounters.

But the filming of Roth’s plot unmasks it as excessively diagrammatic and heavy-handedly ironic. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer’s cumbersome narrative structure, tacking back and forth through time, saps the movie’s dramatic momentum, and the closing quarter-hour is particularly maladroit. With Coleman and Faunia already dead, Nathan tracks down their survivors, resulting in meetings that crudely and unnecessarily underline the film’s themes of self-acceptance and redemption. It hardly helps that Sinise plays Zuckerman as flatly as he would a man waiting for an overdue bus.

Although handsomely photographed by Jean-Yves Escoffier, The Human Stain proves to be another misstep for Benton, who began so promisingly with the deeply cynical, morally intricate 1972 Civil War comedy-drama Bad Company but has descended into torpor (Still of the Night), mawkishness (Places In The Heart), and mirthlessness (Nadine). In a funny way, though, Benton still comes off better than Campion, doing the best he can with intractable material instead of trying to impose personal flourishes on an impersonal project. Certainly, Benton will still be getting Hollywood projects to direct every two years, while Campion—the better filmmaker—might well have to regroup in her native New Zealand after her disheartening tryout. CP