I Heart Huckabees
Director : David O. Russell
Screenplay : David O. Russel & Jeff Baena
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Jason Schwartzman (Albert Markovski), Isabelle Huppert (Caterine Vauban), Dustin Hoffman (Bernard Jaffe), Lily Tomlin (Vivian Jaffe), Jude Law (Brad Stand), Mark Wahlberg (Tommy Corn), Naomi Watts (Dawn Campbell), Angela Grillo (Angela Franco), Ger Duany (Mr. Nimieri)
David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees, his first film in five years, is the kind of original, clever, off-kilter filmmaking that's easy to appreciate, but hard to like. Russell and his coscreenwriter Jeff Baena have cooked up a bizarre screwball comedy about the meaning of life, but they forgot to infuse any of it into their story or characters.
Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), long-haired and unshaven, plays Albert Markovski, a young environmentalist who experiences a series of odd, but probably meaningless coincidences that propel him to the offices of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a pair of "existential detectives" whose job is to investigate people and determine the meaning of their lives. Albert just wants to understand the meaning of this particular set of coincidences, but he winds up with much more than he bargained for once Bernard and Vivian start snooping around every aspect of his life.
They are particularly interested in his antagonistic relationship with Brad Stand (Jude Law), an arrogant and shallow sales executive for the Huckabees chain of retail superstores who has usurped Albert's control of his Open Spaces environmentalist coalition for less-than-noble reasons. Albert wants to appeal to people through bad poetry and genuine idealism, whereas Brad wants to sell images through Shania Twain concerts and fancy tee-shirts. They are, in just about every sense, polar opposites, which in the twisty world of Bernard and Vivian's life philosophy makes them one in the same because "everything is the same, even if it's different."
This particular philosophy is countered by Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a sexy, non-nonsense French philosopher who was once Bernard and Vivian's student. Caterine argues that life is meaningless and cruel and that there are no connections among anything. Thus, Albert finds himself in a philosophical tug-of-war between these two worldviews, and he gravitates toward one or the other depending on his life circumstances.
Albert is also paired with his "other," a firefighter named Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) who is a true seeker, so much so that he drives his wife out of the house with his constant philosophical haranguing and obstinate refusal to drive a car or ride in one because petroleum consumption is the cause of all the world's ills. Throw in Naomi Watts as Dawn Campbell, a beautiful, but vapid Huckabees spokesmodel who re-evaluates her life once she's drawn into Bernard and Vivian's philosophisizing, and all the ingredients are there for a spaced-out existential farce.
Russell nails the farce aspect of the film, generating solid laughs from finding consistently amusing ways to visualize the kind of obtuse intellectual jargon that makes most people run out of the room screaming. Russell has shown a proclivity for quirky humor, honed to a sharp point in his breakthrough film Flirting With Disaster (1997) and used for political jabbing in his brilliantly paradoxical Three Kings (1999). Unfortunately, I Heart Huckabees is all quirk with nothing on which to ground it. His actors are all game for his ethereal screwball antics, and they deliver their lines with a straight-faced seriousness that makes the film's wacky tone that much funnier. Dustin Hoffman, with his gray bowl cut and pleasant grin, is particularly good at conveying Bernard's feel-good seriousness, even when he's zipping Albert into a body bag to help him deal with his issues. Wahlberg, who has been flat in many other films, has by far the most emotion in I Heart Huckabees, and he comes the closest to being a real character, one wracked with anger and confusion in his search to find what it all means.
Yet, beyond that, none of the characters come alive, and none of them register as anything beyond types. Russell misses the importance of humanity in the farce, which is the difference between Preston Sturges and The Three Stooges. Each character in I Heart Huckabees represents something and nothing more, thus their existential dilemmas have no emotional dimension. Albert, Tommy, Brad, and Dawn are all variants on lost souls being tugged between the poles of the Jaffes' life-affirming connectedness and Caterine's nihilistic chaos theory. This is all good as comical food for thought, but it never engages beyond academic jokiness.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures