I Heart Huckabees
Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Isabelle Huppert, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Ger Duany, Talia Shire, Bob Gunton, Jean Smart, Tippi Hedren, Shania Twain. (2004, R, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 8, 2004
This long-awaited new film from David O. Russell is billed as an "existential comedy"; I’d argue it’s his second comedy of this sort, after 1996’s terrific Flirting With Disaster, which charted one man’s search for his birth parents and, more broadly, a better sense of himself and his place in the universe. I Heart Huckabees is a weightier picture, but it’s also, alas, a less funny one. It’s certainly his kindest picture to date – but then, no one would have confused Russell’s ickily subversive debut, Spanking the Monkey, and his brilliant Three Kings with a case of the warm fuzzies. I Heart Huckabees, however, shies away from neither; it’s warm in its portrayal of lost souls looking to connect and fuzzy in its soft philosophy. The questions it poses – what it means to be human and of this world – are deep; the explorations, via the plot and characterizations, aren’t entirely. But then what you can expect from a 105-minute film that boasts no fewer than seven above-the-line stars? At the center of the fray is Albert Markovski (Schwartzman), a shaggy-haired poet/environmental activist fighting a losing battle against the construction crane of a Wal-Mart-like retail store, Huckabees, and its charismatic VP, Brad Stand (Law). In an unrelated tangent – but then again, everything’s related – Albert is stumped by a series of seemingly coincidental run-ins with a 7-foot-tall African teen (Duany). To help unravel the mystery, he employs a married team of existential detectives, Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Hoffman and Tomlin, a sublime comic team à la Nichols and May, Grant and Hepburn). There’s also a burnout firefighter, Tommy Corn, who in the wake of 9/11 has alienated his friends and family with rantings about the petroleum industry; Huckabees’ Malibu Barbie spokeswoman, Dawn Campbell (Watts); Caterine Vauban (Huppert), the Jaffes’ one-time protégé and now rival philosophe; and a series of doofy, Magritte-inspired hallucinations/fantasy sequences. The central tension of the piece is between the supposedly opposing approaches of those lovable Zen kooks, the Jaffes, and Vauban (the Jaffes argue that "everything is connected," while Vauban’s mantra sounds "cruelty, manipulation, meaningless"), but that conflict defuses rather quickly when any armchair existentialist can easily broker a peace between the two philosophies. (The film also leaves out the nature of the break between the two factions, a crucial bit of information, it would seem.) The more compelling issue is whether or not these eccentrics will give themselves over to what Vauban calls "the inevitability of human drama," and it’s a delight watching the top-notch cast fight the impulse and finally, giddily give in (most especially Wahlberg’s wounded Tommy Corn, who, quite endearingly, always seems to have his shirt one button off). The script, by Russell and first-timer Jeff Baena, is messy and meandering, leaning more toward absurd than that old critic’s chestnut, "anarchic" – but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun and at times terribly moving. It’s aided by Jon Brion’s gentle score; he also composed the music for Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two superior films with which I Heart Huckabees shares the admirable ability to straddle two extremes at once. In its best moments, Russell’s film marries melancholy with winsomeness, despair with elation. An existential comedy, to be sure, but in the end it quite happily tips toward being and everythingness.