I heart adventurous movies over formulaic ones: "I Heart Huckabees"

by Eric Melin on October 22, 2004

in Print Reviews

Slumped on the floor of an elevator with his arch nemesis, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) has reached a higher level of peace with himself. It has been a rough last couple of days. He’s been deliberately and repeatedly hit in the face by a big red punching ball. He’s been dunked in a puddle of mud. And lastly, he’s been faced with his mother’s disappointment at the failure that his own life has become. But his journey has come full circle with the help of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), two “existentialist detectives” who have been following and documenting Albert’s every move.

“Are you going down?”

That question, like everything in “I Heart Huckabees”, drips with philosophical double meaning. (It also drips with another meaning that the movie doesn’t imply and I won’t go into.) Although that other meaning wouldn’t be totally out of place in the hyper-real world created by “Huckabees.” The movie’s irreverence and ability to surprise are precisely what helps it avoid being a big, pretentious mess.

Director/co-writer David O. Russell opens his bizarre new comedy with Albert walking through a field spewing a colorful string of curse words, and immediately the tone for the movie is set. Maybe Russell saw Richard Linklater’s adventurous, yet ultimately ponderous animated rant “Waking Life” a couple years back and saw the pitfalls inherent in a “philosophy movie” that takes itself way too seriously. Albert continues walking to a large rock and holds a small press conference for his own Open Spaces Coalition. Rallying against Huckabees department stores and their suburban expansion, he delivers his edict to the assembled mass—in the form of a horribly bad poem.

The coalition is a silly, obvious group of left-wing nutsos. Albert’s crisis grows out of his three recent coincidental (or not?) sightings of a tall African man and also from his fear of being displaced as the leader of Open Spaces. The who that threatens him is driven upper-management hopeful Brad Stand (Jude Law), whose candy sweet and one-dimensional girlfriend (Naomi Watts) is the spokesmodel for Huckabees.

Despite the density of some of the deeper dialogues, one of the film’s strengths is that everything in the movie can be ably reduced to a funny bit of nonsense. In a clever scene, Albert seems to be chasing his own tail outside the maze-like hallways of the detectives’ office. The Jaffes, who happen to be a blissfully compatible and well-adjusted couple encourage Albert to try to see the big picture, or the “blanket truth” all the time. Bernard zips him up in a black body bag, and Albert closes his eyes and concentrates. Russell’s visual depiction of Albert’s visions start out similar to James Stewart’s cut-out floating head in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” then turns into a brightly-colored and fast-paced nightmare with Albert using a machete on his tormentors.

The actor who walks away with the biggest laughs of “I Heart Huckabees” is also the one whose character starts out on the shakiest of grounds. We catch up with Tommy Corn, hilariously played by Mark Wahlberg, as his wife and child are leaving him. He is in the midst of a crisis so heavy that he tries lecturing his little girl about her responsibility to the world as her Mom is pushing her in the car to escape her raving father. Apparently, one’s second life crisis begins after hearing what the detectives have to say, and Tommy is reeling. He’s also under the influence of a book by a French nihilist(!). Tommy’s going over the edge and his dilemma is in your face, man!

The film’s pace is manic, a direct counterpoint to the relaxing philosophies that the detectives preach. Albert himself has the interest to look deeper into his being, but is still somewhat a product of an age that is always rushing forward. His impatience is a metaphor for modern society, and when he rushes off with Tommy to find the tall African man before properly confronting his fears, the Jaffes lose their client/patient to the Dark Side.

Enter the Frenchwoman. Isabella Huppert is Caterine Vauban, an old enemy of the detectives who shows up for no other reason it seems, than to tempt Tommy and Albert. After all the Jaffes’ quantum physics mumbo-jumbo, Caterine offers Albert an easy-to-understand psychological parallel for his anger and an outlet for it as well. Her card states her offer: cruelty and meaninglessness. When nothing matters, then the freedom that is granted to you becomes utterly complete. And, again, very funny.

“I Heart Huckabees” is a very strange movie, one that finds a balance between crazy slapstick humor and high concept ideas. The editing is a bit choppy, and often characters will veer between wildly polar emotions in the span of one scene. This only serves to disquiet the viewer, and I took it as a challenge. Russell breaks our plane of reality and, to illustrate Bernard’s points, the director breaks down the very fabric of time and space into little moving squares in order to argue whether it is the squares that matter or the space between them.

The dialogue is delivered in a rapid-fire manner. Robert Altman would be proud of one scene in particular at a dinner table where the actors talk over each other so much you can barely tell what is being said. Russell also directed the similarly manic “Flirting with Disaster,” an odd family-issues comedy that was under-appreciated when it came out in 1996. Underneath all the yelling and screaming in that film lurked some darker, more serious problems. The same is true here. “I Heart Huckabees” is a bold and adventurous picture, and like the more lightweight “Flirting”, it offers some unlikely and simple solutions to deeper problems.

From a movie no more grounded in our reality than a “reality” show on the Fox network, offering an unlikely wrap-up is not a serious offense. After all, who can blame Russell for teasing his audience with the prospect of understanding their role in the universe? When you reach that balance, as Bernard puts it to Albert early in the film, “Everything that you want, you have….and you are.”

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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