“Nobody sits like this rock sits
You rock, rock
You show us how to just sit here
And that’s what we need” — Poem, I Heart Huckabees
Well after its release, David O. Russell’s daring existential comedy I Heart Huckabees was hijacked by popular culture, first for leaked footage of Russell’s epic shouting matches with star Lily Tomlin, and later as headline fodder for the political aspirations of Face In The Crowd-like populist Mike Huckabee. All of which has been a distraction from the movie itself, and maybe a welcome one for many, given how abrasive, difficult, and flat-out bizarre Russell’s film turned out to be. Even now, after the clarification of a third or fourth viewing, I still find it challenging to parse the philosophically loaded dialogue as it spills out with the breathless speed of a classic ’30s screwball comedy. Among studio (or studio boutique) comedies of the last decade, only Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love can rival its extreme ambition and dissonance; it’s probably no coincidence that Jon Brion composed the jagged, off-rhythm scores for both.
Front and center, Russell asks the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Is the universe just random, cruel, and meaningless, or are we connected by some larger and more positive force? For a film to ask these questions is akin to forcing viewers to stare directly into the sun, and though Russell and his cast work strenuously to convert them into wacky comic business, they still burn holes in viewers’ retinas. Through the story of a down-on-his-luck environmental activist seeking to make sense of a series of coincidences, I Heart Huckabees escalates into a profound—and profoundly silly—rumination on the nature of existence, as its hero searches for answers via sensory deprivation, a big blanket, and failing that, a giant red ball smacked repeatedly against his face.
From the beginning of his career, Russell has always been a seeker; the only difference with I Heart Huckabees is that his “What does it all mean?” questions are asked more explicitly. The common denominator between Russell’s darkly comic debut feature Spanking The Monkey, the dysfunctional screwball humor of Flirting With Disaster, and the sly heist/war-movie hybrid Three Kings are young men mired in a state of existential limbo. In Spanking The Monkey, it’s a recent college grad (Jeremy Davies) stuck in the humbling no-man’s land between graduation and medical school; in Flirting With Disaster, it’s a neurotic father (Ben Stiller) who can’t feel complete until he tracks down his birth parents; and in Three Kings, it’s soldiers who plunder Saddam’s gold in lieu of any higher purpose in the first Iraq War. These characters are all searching for something tangible on which to build their lives, and in that respect, the eccentrics populating I Heart Huckabees is no different. It’s just that their individual journeys are way the hell more abstract.
The poem quoted above is authored by Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a flustered environmentalist whose campaign to save a marsh and the forest surrounding it has claimed one miniscule victory in the form of a large rock. Like a lot of crude (okay, bad) poetry, the unvarnished truth is right there on the surface: Albert envies the rock. The rock has certainty. The rock has purpose. And due to his noble intervention, the rock isn’t going anywhere. In contrast to the rock, Albert’s life is a mess. His “Open Spaces” environmental charter has been co-opted by Brad Stand (Jude Law), a fatuous executive from a Target/Wal-Mart department-store chain called Huckabees. In place of Albert’s precious poetry, Brad has campaigned to bring Shania Twain on board for a benefit concert, with the hidden intent to use corporate philanthropy to gloss over a greedy land grab. And Albert—poor, earnest, hopelessly idealistic—can do nothing to stop it.
In his despair, Albert pays a visit to Jaffe & Jaffe, a pair of “existential detectives” who operate within the labyrinthine walls of an office building that could house floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich. Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin) are in the business of helping people figure out the core issues of their being, by bizarre means and no matter how long it takes. Though Albert comes seeking an explanation to an odd coincidence—he keeps running into a lanky Sudanese immigrant—Bernard and Vivian immediately pick up on signs of a deeper crisis and begin following him around. Here, Bernard uses a blanket to explain his comforting theory that everything and everyone in the universe is connected:
To help Albert along, Bernard and Vivian introduce him to Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a fireman and philosopher who looks out for him much like a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. Tommy cares about the environment, too, but he’s more militant—or at least, more belligerent—about the cause, refusing to use a drop of petroleum. He rides his bike everywhere and won’t even board his own fire truck, which generally makes him late to emergencies. Tommy serves as a short-fused enforcer for Albert, but his temper fuels an impulsive side, too; unconvinced of Bernard and Vivian’s sunnier worldview, he’s drawn instead to the dark teachings of Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a mysterious Frenchwoman who would tear the Jaffes’ blanket to ribbons. (Her business card reads, “Cruelty, manipulation, meaningless.”)
With the philosophical parameters set, I Heart Huckabees follows where these characters—and the movie itself—land on the vast continuum between the Jaffes’ optimism and Caterine’s nihilism. A manic comedy is an odd place to explore these fundamental questions of being, and the sheer density of the ideas under rapid-fire discussion tends to mute or obscure some of the laughs. (It’s no great slight on the film to say that the script likely reads better than it plays, because it can be processed a little more slowly.) But through Albert’s futile quest to save a scrap of land—as little as a rock, even!—from “suburban sprawl,” Russell taps into the common anxiety of many who feel powerless to shape the world around them. Fighting an all-powerful corporation like Huckabees (and slicksters like Brad, who also winds up questioning his hollow lifestyle) is quixotic and humiliating, so it follows that a conscientious person like Albert would be thrown into existential despair. It’s hard to surrender yourself to homogeneity.
Though Schwartzman taps easily into his Rushmore melancholy, and old comedy veterans Hoffman and Tomlin are a fine team—I particularly like Hoffman’s blinkered enthusiasm over touchy-feely concepts like “the blanket thing”—Wahlberg is the film’s MVP, to my mind. His live-wire contentiousness serves as the perfect counterbalance to Schwartzman’s meek passivity, and gives his friend a measure of power that he can never muster on his own. (When Brad tries to hijack an Open Spaces meeting with his trusty Shania Twain standee—to be followed, no doubt, by his endlessly repeated anecdote about procuring a tuna-salad sandwich for her—Tommy simply punches him the face.) As different as they are, though, Tommy and Albert are boyish, open-minded, a little goofy, and supremely eager to find the answers, by whatever ridiculous means necessary. Here’s a terrific scene where the Mutt-and-Jeff duo try out Caterine’s red ball as a mind-clearing exercise:
So it comes down to a choice between “the ball thing” and “the blanket thing”: Either pound your face repeatedly until you know the “freedom of being like a dish of mold,” or cuddle up to the equally numbing idea that the particles in our bodies connect us with everything from orgasms to hamburgers. It’s little wonder that I Heart Huckabees discovers an Option C that strikes a vague balance between these seemingly incompatible philosophies, ending on the optimistic thought that Albert’s misadventures have brought some perspective, if not quite enlightenment. To say the film isn’t for everyone is an understatement—it’s rare for any film to divide critics as sharply as this one—but that’s a testament to Russell’s go-for-broke audacity. It takes courage to lift the rhythms and architecture of fizzy ’30s comedies and clog them up with the tortured mysteries of existence. You can count the number of movies that have attempted that on one finger.
Next week: Darkman
July 9: Lost Highway
July 16: [Vacation.]
July 23: Pootie Tang