Calling a movie an “existential comedy” is a pretty tall claim, not to mention a risky proposition in today’s film market. But damned if writer/director David O. Russell hasn’t pulled it off!
Russell’s now three for four with me. I have to admit I hated his second movie, Flirting with Disaster, which felt like warmed-over Albert Brooks (and even piping-hot Brooks is enough to send me running for the exit).
But Russell has been consistently daring. His first movie, Spanking the Monkey, was predicated on nothing but taboos, with a title grounded in masturbation and a storyline centered on incest. Three Kings cast three Hollywood stars in what remains the only movie that has dared to explore the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, even if it was (very thinly) disguised as a kind of Kelly’s Heroes caper flick.
Now comes I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s best and most daring work to date. The movie will likely polarize audiences, since most viewers will either love it or hate it; I don’t see much room for a middle-ground. And frankly, in this age of tentative filmmaking — when daring work is as rare as a Jerry Bruckheimer production without explosions — that’s just swell with me.
This is not an easy film. It requires the viewer to actually think and to have some frame of reference (I know, that’s really pushing things), and to decide just what kind of a film it is. Is this a wild send-up of New Age philosophies (I can see the audience for What the Bleep Do We Know!? slugging it out with this film’s audience) or an endorsement of them? Is it a comedy or a philosophical discourse? You can answer those questions yourself, but for me, the answer is, “All of the above.”
The narrative takes no prisoners in depicting the characters’ myriad flaws and self-deceptions, but before the story is over, all these foolish and ridiculous folks are shown to have their own wisdom, too. They are truth-seekers, people who understand the value of knowing all the right questions, even if the answers ultimately elude them.
It’s significant that the only characters that show no wisdom are those we meet in passing — notably, a hardcore religious family and Albert Markovski’s (Jason Schwartzman, S1m0ne) self-satisfied parents, who have no questions about anything and who learn nothing. It’s a delicious moment when the smug daughter of the ultra-religious family asserts that “Jesus is never mad at us if we live with Him in our hearts,” only to be told, “I hate to break it to you, but He is; He most definitely is.”)
The brilliance — I’m temped to say genius — of Russell’s approach is two-fold. First, he dresses his film as a bizarre comedy that isn’t afraid to descend (or rise, depending on your view) to pure slapstick. Second, he recognizes both the values and dangers inherent in any belief system. His seekers all become absurd by taking their beliefs too far, often while lying to themselves about what’s really going on in the process.
Albert, for example, doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize that his environmentalist stance is partly grounded in using his activist group to showcase his awful poetry, and that much of his fight against the Huckabees’ chain stores is related to his betrayal by Huckabee executive Brad Stand (Jude Law). Similarly, when he hires “existentialist detectives” Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin) to investigate why he keeps running into the same person (newcomer Ger Duany), Albert constantly lies to them about his life and his real problems, undermining the detectives’ efforts to help him at every turn.
On the other hand, Albert’s “partner,” Tommy Corn (an astonishingly good Mark Wahlberg), is one of those people searching so hard that he latches onto any “answers” that come his way with the type of overwhelming fervor only found in a gung-ho convert. It’s no surprise that he’s so quick to drop the Jaffes’ philosophy of the connectedness of things in favor of the utterly nihilistic teachings of their one-time collaborator Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), whose business card announces her specialties: “Cruelty, Manipulation, Meaninglessness.”
As complex as all this seems, it’s only the tip of the iceberg, since the film also flirts with a great deal of subtext concerning the bonding of Albert and Brad, as well as Albert and Tommy. The second relationship is perhaps more complex, in that Tommy feels betrayed when Albert ends up in the sack with Caterine, leaving Tommy alone again.
Despite all the fun he has at the expense of his existential detectives and their philosophies, Russell has one more bonding up his sleeve, one that ultimately demonstrates the “connectedness of things.” He also shows that even the teachers can learn a thing or two, and that’s the glory of Huckabees.
This movie actually seeks the sort of answers that a film like What the Bleep Do We Know!? tries to force on you, and it’s both more honest and more entertaining. This one’s a keeper.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke