I Heart Huckabees (2004), or Where’s The Love?

26 09 2009

I’m always at odds with I Heart Huckabees. Part of me loves its madcap antics and its existential search for cosmic meaning. There’s a lot of talent here, and anyone can find a character to latch onto, I think. Director and writer David O. Russell has a lot of interesting ontological ideas at play here as well as a style that I personally relished. On the other hand, a lot of the characters are sorely one-dimensional and quirky to a fault,  there’s no clear conflict, much less a resolved conflict, and I felt there to be more than a bit of the ol’ meandering throughout the main plot that really detracted from any momentum I Heart Huckabees hoped to gain. Hmmmm…

Well, where to begin? It all starts with Albert, an ecological activist who is having an existential crisis of sorts. He is trying to save an area of land from being turned into a Huckabees department store (real world equivalent: Target). He’s fighting with all he’s got, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good, especially when a smarmy executive for Huckabees named Brad weasels his way into his organization and gets them on his side. His philosophical awakening comes when he sees a conspicuously large African doorman 3 separate times in the course of a day. He gets the feeling that this means something, and he contacts two “existential detectives”, who teach him a doctrine of “universal interconnectivity” that opens his eyes to a whole new realm of consciousness. In this awakening of his, the detectives issue him an “other” (sort of a philosophical sponsor) to help him through this process. His other, Tommy, is a very outspoken firefighter who is trying universal connectivity, but isn’t afraid to punch somebody in the face about it either. They’re a strange pair, but it somehow works. For a while, anyways. The problem is that the philosophy seems incomplete, because Albert still feels miserable, and the doctrine said nothing about all the misfortune happening around him. Tommy knows someone who might be able to help, but it would mean going in the complete opposite direction philosophically. Things aren’t going well in weaselly Brad’s life either, as the detectives have approached him and questioned the meaning in his shallow corporate life and his vapid relationship with a Huckabees model. What will happen to these strange individuals now that philosophy and meaningful thought has been introduced into their lives? Will it make a difference to them? Will they stay the same? Should it matter whether there is a change or not, as long as the concepts have been explored, thus creating a cognizance that one can use for honest and healthy appraisal of the self?

It’s hard to imagine where David O. Russell got this idea from. Perhaps he was sitting in a community college philosophy course and was bored, penning a Hardy Boys-esque mystery story called “The Philosophy Detectives” that morphed into today’s film. Or perhaps David O. Russell is slightly insane/brilliant. We’ll never know. But I like the idea of infusing philosophical aspects to modern day scenarios in a very literal sense. That’s inventive, fresh, and all kinds of interesting, and I think more directors should get the chutzpah to try something so bold and unique. Just don’t do it exactly like today’s film.

You see, I Heart Huckabees suffers from a lack of focus. We’re not really learning anything from these characters on a philosophical level. They seem more hungry for semantics than anything else, skirting around the edges of the subject but avoiding any real touchstones into the ideas of existentialism or transcendentalism. It just stands out as weird rather than insightful. And even if we were to defend it by calling it a comedy, not only would it totally invalidate every non-joke philosophical discussion put up on screen, but it also raises doubts as to how funny the movie is, because I wasn’t exactly laughing my ass off during the whole universal interconnectivity discussion.

The cast is mixed, but leaning towards good. My breakdown: Jude Law as weaselly Brad, not good. I was not impressed in the slightest by this character, because Jude Law didn’t seem very into his own work. He smiled a lot and made his usual “I’m incredulous!” faces, but to no avail.

Jason Schwartzman as Albert, good. Schwartzman comes into his own and brings a lot of zest into this movie with his role. Albert is astute but lost, all together there but confused. It makes his awakening all the more interesting to watch as he blooms as a character.

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as the existential detectives, so-so. These two were just kinda there. They certainly said there lines, and I definitely saw some movement on the screen, but I was not too thrilled with anything they put up on screen. They seemed tired, worn-out, almost jet-lagged, and perhaps had better things to do in their opinions.

Mark Wahlberg as Tommy the Other, very good. Wahlberg shows time and time again that he indeed CAN act when he wants to, and proves it here again with short-fused Tommy Corn, firefighter/rough-and-tumble philosopher/lover. He’s probably my favorite character, overall, and has a lot of hilarious energy to offer this movie.

Naomi Watts as Dawn, Brad’s model girlfriend, good. Watts uses her charm sparingly here to play a vacuous woman who has a philosophical epiphany. I liked what she did here, because a lot of real emotions came up when she finds out what kind of a guy Brad really is and what kind of corporation Huckabees is when she figures out that they only wanted her for her beauty. Not her best work, but not bad.

Isabelle Huppert as Caterine Vauban, sexy. Ms. Huppert plays this character, the typical French Nihilist, with comedic precision and undeniable sex appeal, despite her incredibly thick accent. You can understand most of it; she’s just VERY French. I like her character’s motivations and her portrayal quite a bit, and you also can’t forget about her legendary sex appeal, which radiates from the screen like a radioactive cougar.

It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but I Heart Huckabees is far from terrible. There are some logical questions that nagged me, some more philosophy I would have liked to explore, a cast that wasn’t all there, perhaps some more, I don’t know, jokes, but it works with what it has. I think that despite that, though, it’s a comedy with a fair amount of insight and intelligent humor that I wouldn’t have a problem with watching again. I was going to give this movie a 6, but the Shania Twain running joke bumped it up a notch, so I’m giving I Heart Huckabees 7 radioactive cougars out of 10. ROAR!

Keep an eye out for my review of Pandorum later tonight! I leave you with a clip of the legendary on-set argument between Lily Tomlin and director David O. Russell while they filmed I Heart Huckabees. It’s quite possibly one of the best blow-ups I’ve seen in a while: