I Heart Huckabees (2004)

2004-10-01 (Limited release)

Don’t wanna be an American idiot.
Don’t want a nation under the new media.
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mindfuck America.
— Green Day, “American Idiot”

Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is concerned. A sentimental poet, passionate activist against suburban sprawl, and sober director of the Open Spaces Coalition, he’s lately been subject to disturbing “coincidences.” Specifically, he’s been seeing the same doorman, a “tall African man,” Mr. Nimieri (Ger Duany), at odd times and places. Presuming that such sightings can’t be random, Albert decides instead that they must Mean Something. And so he sets out to determine the meaning.

In such pursuit, he hires Existential Detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), two quirky, mutually appreciative sorts who tend to wonder aloud whether their prospective clients have ever “transcended space and time.” Albert hasn’t, so far as he knows, but he’s willing to consider the concept — and I Heart Huckabees goes on to picture it for you, in case you’re not quite so inclined, with little puzzle pieces of characters faces floating in space and out of time, suggesting that matter and non-matter might actually interact, tenuously, oddly, unbelievably. Just as the movie endeavors to make it easy for you to follow its fundamental queries, it also offers ways out, through antic comedy, Jon Brion’s inventive score, and a series of seeming coincidences that hardly comprise a “plot.” Indeed, pieces of you might be floating out there right now, but you’ll never attend to this radical symptom of fragmentation becoming connection because you can’t imagine it. As Bernard cautions his new client, though “People claim they want to know the ultimate truth about reality,” mostly, they’re content to “remain on the surface of things.”

Albert’s journey toward such knowledge — his version of it, anyway — is at once mind-blowing and mundane. David O. Russell’s movie won’t make it easy, either by adopting a coherent tone or posing resolvable questions. At the moment, he’s somewhat distracted by his ongoing battle with the corporation that more or less represents all that he considers evil on the planet, the Target-like warehouse-style department store called Huckabees, continually extending its material and spiritual borders to encroach on the “nature” to which Albert has devoted himself. Embodying this evil, as the corporate structure per se doesn’t provoke a visceral revulsion, is Brad Stand (Jude Law), as callow and self-involved an individual as you’d expect to be cajoling for a company called Huckabees. He’s shifty enough to have hired his girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts) to be the “face of Huckabees.” Investigating Albert’s case, Vivian stops by to watch Dawn’s photo session: a series of shots in which she vapidly, smilingly poses, composed to set off logos, that is, to sell product, whatever it is.

All this crass materialism is suddenly especially hard on Albert, as his own organization has entered into an “agreement” with the corporation, hoping to stanch the loss of ground — literal and metaphorical — in their efforts to save the environment. The deal involves hiring Shania Twain to endorse and promote the company, a notion that prompts Brad to tell and retell his “Shania Twain story,” highlighting tuna fish sandwiches and his own devilish cleverness. He’s told it so many times, it seems, that even Brad isn’t sure what about it might be true. In an apparent effort to undermine Albert further, Brad also engages the Existential Detectives, which leads him and Dawn to places they never imagined, quite beyond the white-on-white décor of their radiant suburban home.

Feeling betrayed by Open Spaces (which he founded), Albert is again faced with basic questions: Are we really “all connected”? How can “everything be the same even if it’s different”? To ease his transition into a next stage of consciousness, the detectives assign Albert an “other,” Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter feeling existentially unbalanced since 9/11, is campaigning against the petroleum industry. “I see it so clearly,” he says, when no one else can. Upset that his courageous colleagues died in a “war” that stems from collective oil dependency as it runs up against a combination of religious and capitalistic fundamentalisms (recalling Troy, Wahlberg’s character in Russell’s Three Kings, also forced to learn a harsh lesson about world orders, oil, racism, and Michael Jackson), Tommy leads Albert into yet anther dimension of connectedness.

“Ok,” Tommy writes on his blog, “About the petroleum thing… let’s say the world is temporary (which it basically is), and identity is an illusion, then everything is meaningless, and it doesn’t matter if we use petroleum, and that’s got me very confused.” The fact that this blog “exists” outside the film, at only seems to exacerbate I Heart Huckabees ‘ perpetual conundra: Tommy resists definition even as he seeks it, he’s heroic and genuine, but also a figment writing into a digital ether, worrying about real world economies. While Tommy is undergoing his own simultaneously banal and philosophical crisis (abandoned by his girlfriend), he injects some potential specificity into Albert’s anxieties. This despite the apparent fact that Tommy’s concerns are (arguably) global and abstract, quite beyond the capacity of any individual to comprehend, let alone alter.

Albert and Tommy find themselves increasingly confused when faced with the Jaffes’ sworn arch-enemy, their former student, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). Resolved to prove that her own philosophical bent (nothing is connected, all is random) is superior to that of her mentors’ insistence on connections. Caterine (“C’est vrai, the universe is cruel!”) carries a sleek business card that guarantees “Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness,” and undertakes to reeducate Tommy and Albert. This process takes various forms (including sex, dirt, and beachballs slammed ritually into the face), but as intensive as it is, Caterine’s scheme never quite comes into focus. And if her scheme doesn’t work out quite as she appears to anticipate (though who really knows, plans being so utterly mutable in this unpredictable and “temporary” universe), Caterine nevertheless helpfully incites the boys to their own discoveries, joint and separate. Despite and because of any enlightenment, “It is inevitable,” she observes, “that you are drawn back into human drama.”

Which brings us back to the coincidences. Albert never does discover the single meaning of his sightings of Mr. Nimieri, the only black person amid this bland suburban sprawl, a Sudanese student living with the most white bread of families. Mr. Nimeri’s situation appears arbitrary in the extreme, and yet, it is all about associations too. He has no answers for Albert, just as no one can wholly explain the horrors besetting his homeland — none of which, I Heart Huckabees points out, involve suburban sprawl. And yet, reasons, solutions, and strategies might be found, through and in connections. However random.