Movie Review: I Heart Huckabees
By Allison Benedikt, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
David O. Russell's new film is a comedy "that's all about what it's all about." It's filled with characters who, desperate to feel deep, want answers to life's big questions. And watching it, you, also desperate to feel deep, will want answers to big questions like, "What's this all about?"
This is the great victory of "I (heart) Huckabees."
Whether happy coincidence or calculated outcome, Russell puts the viewer in the same shoes as leading man Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a stereotypical, disheveled nonprofit slave who, as head of the local chapter of the Open Spaces Coalition, works tirelessly to save the environment, rock by rock. After crossing paths with a very tall Sudanese boy one too many times for comfort, Albert hires Vivian and Bernard Jaffe, the Existential Detectives, to explain this coincidence.
If you've been living under a rock (sigh), an existential detective is a sleuth who snoops in order to solve life's great philosophical mysteries. Plenty of recent films, from "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to "Code 46," are littered with creative conceits, but this, as it extrapolates on our culture of therapy, tops the heap. It's a wonderful, original idea. Points for Russell.
But as one might imagine, with such a neato premise and lofty goal, the plot's a little messy. So points docked for execution.
While nosing into Albert's life - Vivian openly spies on her client in the bathroom and tails him around town on a bike - the Jaffes (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) give Albert a buddy, or, to use an AA term, a sponsor. Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) is a troubled firefighter who, since "that September thing," has been working with the detectives to solve his big, related whodunits: Is oil consumption the root of all evil, and if so, does it matter? (Perhaps that answer is somewhere in Russell's last and better film with Wahlberg, "Three Kings," about the Gulf War.)
Tommy is supposed to help Albert self-scavenge in accordance with the Jaffe tenet - we are all connected by a huge mystery beyond our comprehension - but instead ends up feeding him the contradictory ideas of French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), which, boiled down, posit: Life is suffering, get on with it (a theme touched on in Russell's early and funnier film with Tomlin, "Flirting with Disaster").
As Albert and Tommy wrap themselves in Caterine's negativity, Vivian and Bernard dig deeper into Albert's life, finding his hidden vice and the key to unlocking his case: Brad Stand, a perpetually tan up-and-comer at Huckabees, a Target-esque superstore. After feigning ecological concern and flashing his pearly whites, Brad (Jude Law) worms his way into the Open Spaces Coalition and dethrones Albert in order to protect Huckabees' corporate interests. He is Albert's nemesis, his mortal enemy, and soon becomes the center of the Jaffes' investigation.
Attempting to throw them off, genial Brad hires the detectives himself, though as the antithesis of Albert, he has completely blocked his internal demons - his most pressing quandary is which tie best brings out his eyes. But Brad's girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts) is vulnerable to the detectives' probe and soon becomes a faithful disciple, shunning her physical beauty (which, as the sexy spokesmodel for Huckabees, she has aplenty) for a simpler life - in Dawn's case, dressing Amish, bonnet and all.
Pardon the awfully long summary, but it's an awfully thick movie (though not heavy). Often, Russell's philosophizing is too abstract, his big moments too contrived, his emotions kept at bay and his humor buried under mounds and mounds of pretense.
But just as often, the all-star cast earns its collective reputation (Wahlberg and Tomlin especially), and Russell zeroes in on the absurdity of our collective search for answers, even as he exposes his own. Though the film's core struggle never resonates - Jaffe vs. Vauban, Buddha vs. Sartre, Bert vs. Ernie - it perfectly captures the mind-set of the familiar answer-seeker - self-absorbed, frantic to be perceived as intellectual, desperate to "get it," addicted to the hunt - and puts us in it.
Now what's it all about?
"I think it was Marcel Duchamp who said that it's wrong to define art by name," Hoffman has said in answer to that question. "He believed that it was not just retinal, visual. It goes to our brain matter. In fact, he said art is really about defining what art is. It's what art means rather than just giving it a name. So I think David O. Russell is trying to get past what life is on a literal level in order to get to what life means." Come again?
"I (heart) Huckabees"
Directed by David O. Russell; written by Russell and Jeff Baena; photographed by Peter Deming; edited by Robert K. Lambert; production designed by K.K. Barrett; music by Jon Brion; produced by Russell, Gregory Goodman and Scott Rudin. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 8. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (language and a sex scene).
Bernard Jaffe - Dustin Hoffman
Vivian Jaffe - Lily Tomlin
Caterine Vauban - Isabelle Huppert
Brad Stand - Jude Law
Albert Markovski - Jason Schwartzman
Tommy Corn - Mark Wahlberg
Dawn - Naomi Watts