Bill Forsyth has never made a bad movie. Until now. Being Human, the writer/director's mostly flat and lifeless look at what he thinks being human has meant throughout the ages, lacks the flair and mindful touches that have made Forsyth the darling of critics (even if he's much overlooked by the public). It has neither the whimsy of his sweetly amusing Gregory's Girl nor the magic of his mysteriously transcendent Local Hero. What it does have is Robin Williams. But Williams' terrific, wistful performance is lost amid Forsyth's dull, rambling vignettes.
Being Human contains five stories, which range from the Bronze Age to New Age. The protagonist of each tale is a man named Hector (Williams), and what happens to him in his various incarnations is supposed to spin variations on the theme of "humanity": home, family, love, slavery, freedom, desire, obligation, loyalty, journey. The works. It's a large idea to address even in one long tale, not to mention five short ones, and in trying to get his film to encompass it, Forsyth ends up with one-dimensional characters and reductive storylines. Only in the final segment do all the concerns converge; the other four, because they are stripped of everything except a time, an issue and a body, seem arbitrary and sketchy.
Forsyth doesn't help things by making his stories be about storymaking. They're told by the same voiceover narrator (Theresa Russell), who says flat-out, "This is the story of a story," and then goes on to have the story talking to itself: " 'Well,' said the story to itself, 'I suppose I must be a love story.' " These affectations steer Forsyth away from what he does best: showing us the inner workings of eccentric individuals.
The first Hector is an anxious caveman whose family gets carried off by otherwise peaceful foreigners. They come, they see, they take: that's the entire story, with Williams speaking dubious lines such as, "Stay home. Dada's hunting." In tale number two, Hector is a Roman slave who belongs to a foolish master, Lucinnius. For segue's sake, Hector the second has a wife and children in another country. His getting to them is prevented by Lucinnius (John Turturro, in a comical turn), who's so self-absorbed that he thinks earthquakes are bad omens spoken by the gods directly to him. Lucinnius, a lousy businessman, is forced by economic failings to kill himself. He and Hector debate whether the devoted but rational servant should follow in his footsteps. "You're my closest, my dearest, slave," Lucinnius points out. "What will they say about me if you refuse to die with me?" Williams and Turturro have a loopy rapport, but their bizarrely amusing relationship is of the one-joke variety.
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Worse, they don't get anywhere before we're off to Hector number three, a medieval traveler who falls in love with a beautiful woman who doesn't speak his language. This Hector is also separated from his family, but he ultimately decides to return to them in Scotland. Not so lucky is the 16th-century Portuguese Hector (number four), who gets shipwrecked in North Africa and frets about survival and a spurned love.
As he tells these four broadly patterned stories, Forsyth employs one of his favorite techniques: filling the backgrounds with uncommented-upon motifs. But here the chickens, windmills, shoes and boats that keep cropping up don't accent the proceedings, they distract from them. Only occasionally -- as when a huge crucifix keeps tipping over in the distance of the North African beach that Portuguese Hector ineptly makes camp on -- does Forsyth make successful use of these throwaways.
For all this, the final tale, set in the present, almost makes sitting through the other four worthwhile. In it, a worried, divorced New York landlord takes tentative steps toward re-establishing his relationship with his children. Partly set at a roadside carnival on an overcast day, this final segment is laden with the bittersweet poignancy that Forsyth, at his best, handles as well as any other filmmaker. And Williams, who can be quite endearing when he takes on subdued roles, is delicate and vulnerable, good-natured and stumbling. Human, in other words.
There's something in Forsyth's small, idiosyncratically observed movies that causes not only his characters but also his audience to "awake to the only world they will ever know." (To appropriate a line from the narrator of this movie, the exception to the rule.) Unfortunately, in Being Human, Forsyth wakes us up only for a moment, and then allows us to go right back to sleep.