Documentary about a chimp named Nim Chimpsky - put into a Manhattan family home in 1973 by a behavrioural psychologist who set about testing Noam Chomsky's thesis that language is peculiar to humans. Could a non-human animal learn sign-language? From the director of Oscar-winning Man on Wire. Now playing nationwide, click for movie times and trailer.
With its heady mix of compelling true-life story, eccentric characters and dramatic tension, writer-director James Marsh mines yet another long-forgotten slice of ‘70s madness. Those who saw his excellent Man on Wire know exactly what to expect – plenty of talking heads, conflicting stories and betrayal at every turn, but somehow Nim doesn’t quite pack the punch of Philippe Petit’s wire-walking antics. Rather than being amazed at the audacity of the little Frenchman’s scheme, here we are appalled but ultimately unsurprised that such an unusual experiment went pear-shaped, not because the chimp wasn’t up to it but because the human’s motivations were flawed at best, dodgy at worst.
Central in this was psychologist Herbert Terrace, who the film gradually reveals was motivated more by a certain part of his anatomy than any scientific notions. Likewise, the woman who agreed to take Nim in, Stephanie LaFarge, also had bizarre ideas, failing to tell her six kids or husband her new hairy baby was about to arrive and not bothering with any journals or diaries except when it came to the primate pleasuring himself.
Timing-wise the film has also suffered from having its thunder stolen by two recent releases. Tabloid is a far more compelling scandal-and-sex laced doco, while Rise of the Planet of the Apes details with far more drive and verve what happens when primate science goes awry. So whilst the footage gathered (including stills and home movies) is fascinating, this tale of sex, drugs and lies ultimately feels like a VH1 Behind the Music Special rather than something more serious.