It’s been so long since David O. Russell’s Three Kings elevated
the quirky indie director into a whole new stratosphere of brilliant
filmmaking that I was beginning to despair that he would ever release
another movie, and that if he did it would be some sort of awful
self-indulgent wanking.

Thankfully he finally released another movie, and it’s some sort of almost genius self-indulgent wanking. I ♥ Huckabees is
a movie that will divide audiences – people walked out all through my
screening – but it’s a movie that’s worth seeing just because it’s
trying fun things, just because the actors are so good and having such
a blast, and just because it’s funny as hell.

There’s a plot to I ♥ Huckabees, but O. Russell approaches the whole thing assbackward, one of the joys of the film. There’s a quote from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that
sums this movie up perfectly: “The subtext here is rapidly becoming
text.” Characters walk through the film talking only about their
feelings and their questions about life; the stuff that would be only
available on a subtextual level if the film was played straight becomes
the main text of the film, with the real plot taking the back seat.

Jason Schwartzman is Albert Markovsky, a poet-activist working for the
Open Spaces Coalition, battling urban sprawl with his poetry. He comes
across a strange coincidence – he keeps running into an autograph hound
African – and takes this to an existential detective agency, run by
Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Vivian (Lily Tomlin). As they
begin to investigate Albert’s life (by snooping on him, bugging him,
and generally always being underfoot, as well as teaching him
techniques to disassociate himself and begin to break down his ego),
the story intersects with Brad (Jude Law), a yuppie from the Huckabees
Corporation (Huckabees is the “Everything Store” – read: Target), who
has taken over Albert’s Coalition, which is working to save a marsh and
forest from development. Of course Brad plays it like he’s looking out
for the best interests of the land and the people, but he has other
ideas. And then he too gets caught up in an investigation from the
existential detectives.

Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) is a firefighter undergoing his own
existential crisis, and he is being seduced by the dark side of
nihilism, as embodied by rival existential detective Caterine (Isabelle
Huppert). He and Albert are paired up and begin a wild journey into the
darkness of their souls, as they explore competing philosophies, learn
about their relations to the world, each other and themselves, and try
to come to some kind of understanding.

There’s more – Huckabees is
a dense movie. Naomi Watts is a model undergoing her own crisis,
there’s vigorous Mancala playing, debates about religion, petroleum,
our responsibility to each other and the world, the source of
happiness, arson, the origin of matter and more. There’s always more –
O. Russell doesn’t stop introducing ideas until the very last frame of
the film.

It might
be a good idea to stop for a moment and get into just what
existentialism is. It’s pretty tough to describe, if not actually
impossible, so I turned to the greatest boon to the lazy writer,
Google, who supplied me with this (from a page that, thankfully,
confirmed how hard it is to define existential philosophy):

term itself suggests one major theme: the stress on concrete individual
existence, that is, on subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice:

  • Moral Individualism—that
    the highest good for the individual is to find his or her own unique
    vocation; that one must choose one’s own way without the aid of
    universal, objective standards; that no objective, rational basis can
    be found for moral decisions.
  • Subjectivity—that
    personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential
    in arriving at the truth; that the perspective of the individual should
    be emphasized; that one should be suspicious of systematic reasoning;
    that the most important questions in life are not accessible to reason
    or science.

  • Choice and Commitment—that
    humanity’s primary distinction is the freedom to choose; that choice is
    central to human existence, and is inescapable; that freedom of choice
    entails commitment and responsibility; that individuals must accept the
    risk and responsibility of their choices.

  • Dread and Anxiety—that fear and general feelings of apprehension, or dread, are part of the human experience; that anxiety (German Angst)
    results from the individual’s confrontation with the impossibility of
    finding ultimate justification for the choices one makes; that one
    should recognize and acknowledge these feelings of dread and anxiety.

These are the basic concepts that the characters spend the film wrestling
with. And it’s delightful. Tommy Corn finds himself paralyzed in life
because of petroleum – he understands that the drilling of petroleum is
perhaps the actual source of most of the world’s problems, from Middle
East violence to environmental catastrophe, from economic unfairness in
Third World nations to the diminishment of open spaces. But he doesn’t
see how he can extricate himself from the chain of consumption that
makes the drilling of petroleum profitable. On one hand a philosophy
that shows the interconnectedness of all things (as espoused by Bernard
and Vivian) lays on him the confusion of ultimate culpability but also
ultimate blamelessness – if nothing is OK, everything is OK. And on the
other side Caterine is wooing him with the nihilistic take that all of
existence is just pain and suffering anyway, so what does it matter
what you do?

Most other movies would hide the philosophical conflict beneath other actions and stories, but Huckabees front and centers it, turning the film into Waking Life with a plotline. Of course for many people that will sound instant alarm bells, and if Waking Life was just not your cup of tea there’s a good chance you will also find Huckabees frustrating.
It’s not a mindset that I get, but there are people who view wrestling
with the big questions of nothingness and reality as boring or
sophomoric, and that’s what Huckabees is all about.

Actually, hold it a second. If Waking Life wasn’t your cup of tea you may still like Huckabees.
O. Russell populates his film with charismatic actors doing some of
their best work in a while, and he keeps the direction light, almost
fluffy. Jason Schwartzman finally bursts out of the Max Fischer shadow,
which he had tried to do with 2002’s Spun. Huckabees is like his coming out party, as he plays a character who is nothing like Max.

Wahlberg again proves himself a director’s actor – certain people seem
able to get great performances out of him, and in other films he just
becomes leaden. Here as hotheaded Tommy Corn, always running around in
his big fireman boots, Wahlberg is the furious heart of the film.

This is the fall of Jude Law, and quite possibly Jude Law’s fall. While I loved Sky Captain, the rest of America seems to be studiously ignoring it, and his other film in October, Alfie,
will not do well, mainly because it’s just not that good. This is going
to hurt Law, because people will think that he can’t open a movie, and
it’s too bad, because he’s good. Even if his American accent is more
tenuous than Scott Peterson’s alibi, he’s one of the only actors who
could bring the character of Brad through the huge arc that he has and make it even remotely believable.

existential detectives steal the show though. I have been long down on
Dustin Hoffman – he seems to me to be one of those actors who, as they
get older, lose the interest in diverse or interesting roles. Here with
a strange shaggy Mr. Spock haircut and his idiosyncratic shambolic
style, Hoffman’s Bernard is the sort of distracted genius that you
would actually allow to zip you up in a big canvass bag. Lily Tomlin as
his wife brings a verve and sex appeal to the role; she’s the real
gumshoe of the duo, and she has a physical presence, especially paired
with the smaller Hoffman, that lends her complete credence. She’s like
a snoopy aunt taken to an absurd degree.

There are a lot of other things that I loved about Huckabees
– in fact the film seems almost engineered for me. O. Russell uses his
background as an activist and organizer to present a social action
coalition that’s so real it’s almost painful to watch – as someone with
an organizing background I appreciated the way that stuff is woven in.
I loved the way that the basic questions many people of conscience must
ask themselves all the time – how do we live good lives in a world like
this one, where everything we do seems to have a negative impact? – are
handled and, while not answered, dealt with.

Huckabees is going to get comparisons to Magnolia, which are moderately fair, although this film is nowhere in the area of soulcrushing dismalness that Anderson’s film is. Huckabees sent me from the theater with a huge smile on my face, a feeling of contentment in my chest – Magnolia had
my date weeping as she cleaned snow off the car’s windshield in the
parking lot afterwards. But both films are sprawling examinations of
people and their relationships, and both films are fantasy films, and
that’s crucial. Huckabees is more obviously
a fantastic film (although nothing patently surreal happens the very
concept of the existential detectives and how they operate set the film
well outside the gritty reality of Three Kings), while Magnolia has
more of the magical realism element going – reality punctuated with
transcendent and beautify fantasy. If you can’t buy into the basic
premise of Huckabees right from the start –
that these characters will act on and talk about their existential
crises for the whole film – you won’t be able to get into the
proceedings. It’s important to let the first few minutes of the film
wash over you; its’ weird and quirky but not off-puttingly so, and the
film soon finds a groove that you can tag along with. I have only seen the
movie once but I get the feeling that it will age well over multiple
viewings and with more understanding of the philosophical underpinnings
of the various dilemmas.

There will be many
who will dismiss the film as pretentious – frankly, that’s the sort of
intellectual laziness not worth addressing. Huckabees is
a movie that succeeds despite all odds – it should be boring, or
incoherent, or just plain ludicrous, but instead it’s engaging, thought
provoking and delightful. 2004 has shaped up to be one of the better
years in film history, and my top ten list is going to be crowded with
truly great films. I don’t know yet where it will fall, but Huckabees is surely on that list.

9.6 out of 10