Jay Sherman (visiting critic): I said to Woody Allen,
“Well, Camus can do, but Sartre is smartre!”
Homer Simpson (local oaf): Yeah, well, “Scooby Doo can
doo-doo, but Jimmy Carter is smarter.”
Huckabees, the superstore at the center of David O. Russell’s “existential comedy,” exists in a world similar to Truman Burbank’s. Though not a soundstage where cameras record every action, it is a closed environment with a certain philosophical bent bubbling up around every concern. Living within this illusion are Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), an ecological activist whose afraid he’s sold his soul to smarmy Huckabees promoter Brad Strand (Jude Law). They’re fighting for control of the Open Spaces Coalition, a grassroots entity determined to save some endangered wetlands (the company is planning a new mega-mall on the property). Albert wants a “poetry, peace, and protest” solution. Brad believes there is no problem he can’t spin.
That both feel hollow inside is no surprise, as they’re two sides of the same social coin. That both employ “existential detectives” Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) forms the basis for I Heart Huckabees. Though Albert claims to be searching for a rationale for several sightings of a strange, ethereal Sudanese man, the truth is that he’s just a little idealistic boy lost. All he really needs is guidance, shortcuts from one point of consciousness to another without the pain of self-discovery.
I (Heart) Huckabees is an enigma masked by its own intellectualism. It is either the most knowing movie about the nature of existence ever made, or the biggest motion picture mindfuck ever embraced as a work of actual insight. Never as in tune or out of touch as it appears to be, it’s still brave, relying on thoughts rather than chase sequences or sophomoric humor.
Like a standup routine geared for a certain audience—in this case, myopic, self-absorbed 20-somethings—Huckabees will flummox others, making them feel like they haven’t been invited to this pissy pity party. Though it addresses issues as big as the meaning of life, the movie dissects them in the most insular way possible. Looking over the deleted scenes included as part of the DVD release, we can see how the narrative was stripped of all explanation and backstory. The director demands that we sit up, pay attention, and figure a lot of his film out for ourselves.
From the Albert/Brad dynamic to the struggling uncertainty of fireman Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) and spokesmodel Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), the film delivers memorable statements about the frailty of being. But the superstar actors make this focus on what might be called the “search for identity” seem moot. No matter their crises or the depth of their performances, we are still watching Jude Law break down and Dustin Hoffman spout esoteric agitprop.
This same overdetermination informs the two-disc Special Edition, loaded with so much self-referential material and “oh so clever” concepts (the menus include “universal” icons that make surfing the features feel like visiting an international airport) that they threaten to make the movie into its own cult object. From an insert that contains Huckabees’ corporate mission statements to an infomercial Russell made with the Jaffes, the extras suggest all meaning might be manufactured, and quite self-righteous. In his commentary, Russell says the film is a reaction to Ronald Reagan and the voodoo economics mentality of the 1980s. Indirectly blaming commercialism and dependency on oil for the attacks of September 11th, Russell believes that his approach—a combination of the Jaffes’ connectivity and rival Caterine Vauban’s (Isabelle Huppert) nihilism—explains all the ills of mankind. This is heady stuff even for a 16-week seminar in applied philosophy, let alone a supposed mainstream laugh-fest. Still, it’s good to hear adults speak saliently and substantively about weighty concepts.
And for a while, it appears that I (Heart) Huckabees can get by on its terrific pieces of characters. Albert and Brad are so disconnected, they’re haunting. Tommy uses his anger over U.S. abuses of petroleum to mask his inability to interrelate to people. And Dawn, given a nutty set of self-esteem issues by Watts, is told so often that she is the “voice” of Huckabees, that she shouldn’t be surprised when her value is eventually boiled down to just that. For their parts, Vivian and Bernard seem long-lost gurus transplanted from the TM/EST days. You might envision them leading followers to higher perception—or cups of poisoned Kool-Aid—thanks to their commanding, parental styles. But it’s all in service of Russell’s cinematic “art.” On the DVD, he argues for film as canvas, not required to cohere, but instead to show flashes of brilliance between the technique and the intent. By this standard, his movie is a masterpiece, as original as anything out of Charlie Kaufman’s word processor.
But where the “eternally sunny” Kaufman keeps his concepts rooted in emotional life, Russell lets his float off into the ephemera, much like the CG cubes Bernard uses to “prove” his blanket theory. The only time we feel grounded in I (Heart) Huckabees is during an awkward dinner where Albert and Tommy confront the family who have adopted the African who inspires Albert’s (and our) journey. In a rare moments of clarity, the movie’s philosophy, feelings, and fractured narrative all come together to comment coherently on suburban malaise. The scene is so electric that the return to the ennui-laced lunacy Russell is proposing feels pointless.
Indeed, for most of its running time, Huckabees plays like a PhD dissertation. But it never reaches what Werner Herzog would call an “ecstatic truth,” a point where the material transcends its meaning to resonate at a deeper level. Though it wants to dig beneath façades, Huckabees is all surface. Like the line in Annie Hall, when Alvy explains that Commentary and Dissent have merged to form “dysentery,” Russell melds Judeo-Christian precepts with Zen Buddhism to form a kind of Karmic coalition, but ends up with pop art ethics.
Starting with the “heart” symbol in the title, the film asks us to see how we’ve mangled any chance of integrity into logos and packages. But stripped of the word or a context, a “heart” symbol can mean anything (indeed, Russell asserts repeatedly that “heart,” not “love,” is the proper reading here). I (Heart) Huckabees means to make you think, to muse long and hard about what you’ve witnessed after the final fade-out. Too bad that what you’ve witnessed remains locked in its own private cosmos.