In David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, everyone talks a little bit like they’re in a play – the dialogue is unusually dense and abstract for a film, even an artsy one, even an “existential comedy,” as this one purports to be. Huckabees is like a screwball comedy filtered through a student thesis project, but it’s nothing if not original.
Five years have passed since Russell’s crowning achievement so far, the Gulf War comedy-drama Three Kings, and the ensemble cast for his new film suggests he’s spent a lot of that time collecting even more talent to act out his socio-comedic semi-political statements. Jason Schwartzman leads as Albert, a young environmental activist suffering a professional and personal meltdown, as his “coalition” is invaded by smarmy account executive Brad Stand (Jude Law) from the Wal-Mart-like chain store Huckabees (Albert wants to save a local marsh; Stand has his eye on good PR for his company). Albert hires the Jaffees, a pair of “existential detectives” (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to help solve the “case” of his messy life. Half private investigator and half new-age therapist, Tomlin commences the investigation by asking, “Have you ever transcended space and time?”
Tailed, with his consent, by the Jaffes, Albert stumbles through meetings, confrontations, and what passes for his daily routine. The collision of corporate, philosophical, and environmental interests produces a lot of absurdist laughs. Existential dilemmas spread through the characters like a disease; Hoffman tries to let everyone in on our universal connections as human beings, and soon several characters are desperate for help. The way musings and problems bounce around the movie really does create a feeling of unity – but what the film is united around, we’re never quit sure.
Russell seems genuinely interested in how people can live a happy life in the modern world. There are oblique references to 9/11 – Mark Wahlberg plays Tommy, a firefighter obsessed with the evils of petroleum; he hasn’t been the same since what Tomlin refers to as “that big September thing.” Russell nails the searching feeling often exacerbated by such a major disaster, and Tommy personifies it to flailing extremes (he’s always ready for action, even if action consists of throwing rolls or shouting down strangers).
Tommy is assigned as Albert’s “other” (sort of an existential study-buddy) and they soon look to another philosopher, the nihilistic Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), for faster answers. Schwartzman and Wahlberg have a detached yet oddly easygoing chemistry; they look like serious-minded children, riding around on their bikes, aggressively trying to wrap their heads around this philosophy or that.
Despite some corking set pieces (dinner with a family with a coincidental connection to Albert is a highlight), Huckabees doesn’t uncoil like farce; it sprawls with an unpredictability requiring a game cast. Every actor here is up to it: Jude Law continues is chameleonic streak as All-American corporate wonk Brad, and Naomi Watts shows a flair for comedy, playing a Huckabees spokesmodel as a mannequin just beginning to crack under newfound self-awareness. Wahlberg demonstrates that he is yet another attractive young actor better suited to character roles; his Tommy is a weirdly righteous and naïve figure of id, far from the blandness of his usual leads.
What keeps the film itself from transcending space and time is that all of these characters and their connections are essentially pawns of existential theorizing; only Law and Watts convince us that they once had lives outside of their crises (and even they have little help from the screenplay). Russell is too smart and clever to deal in caricatures, but he hasn’t quite created three-dimensional humans, either. Who was Tommy the firefighter before he tried to open his mind?
Russell doesn’t even attempt to answer such questions, and as such has created a sort of paradox: A searching film that doesn’t inspire much post-movie thought. He’s also supervised a neutral-looking visual experience, weighed down by all of the amusing dialogue; there are memorable images, but nothing like the kinetic craftsmanship of Three Kings. I Heart Huckabees is an entertaining oddity, well-acted and funny, but it’s almost too singular to stick as anything else.
Aka I Love Huckabees.
I Heart Naomi.
Review by Jesse Hassenger © 2004 filmcritic.com