Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things?
— Albert (Jason Schwartzman), I Heart Huckabees
Killing Arabs in oil-producing dictatorships where everybody is poor — that’s cruelty and it’s inhumane.
— Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), I Heart Huckabees
The intention was always to do this in a formal way, because I think when you’re having fun with these ideas, it can be mistaken for a lack of seriousness.
— David O. Russell, commentary, I Heart Huckabees
“It’s a scary rollercoaster in there if you just shut everything down and find that you can’t quiet your mind.” At just this moment, DVD commentator David O. Russell is watching his protagonist, Albert (Jason Schwartzman), as he undergoes a singularly spastic mind-trip. Stowed away in a sensory deprivation bag-with-zipper, Albert is trying to discover the order of life in I Heart Huckabees. Or better, he’s trying to learn whether any such order exists, where meaning might be inherent in relations between people, or if randomness, which seems so apparent, is actually what lies beneath.
You might guess from this scene — as Albert’s mind leaps from image to idea to anxiety — that no meaning might be extracted. But really, it’s only the beginning of his journey to enlightenment, says Albert’s new mentor, “existential detective” Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman, whom Schwartzman calls his “cinematic hero,” during a second commentary track, shared with Russell, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts on speakerphone, recorded in Russell’s home, complete with his dog’s noisy interruptions). And Albert, disturbed by what he sees as a convergence of difficulties: the incursions of a Wal-mart-style chain store called Huckabees, and the increasing frustrations he’s feeling as an environmental activist, sentimental poet, and sober director of the Open Spaces Coalition.
Albert’s current search is initiated by a series of coincidences he wants to explain. Specifically, he’s been seeing the same doorman, a “tall African man,” Mr. Nimieri (Ger Duany, whom Russell identifies as “one of the Lost Boys of Sudan”), 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, with the help of Bernard and his wife, Vivian (Lily Tomlin, whom Russell describes as a “kind of existential detective herself; she and her partner Jane Wagner did The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and just her presence has a kind of intelligence and depth and wryness, she gets the joke of existence while she’s also getting the sadness of it”). The Jaffes, quirky, mutually appreciative partners who wonder aloud whether their prospective clients have ever “transcended space and time,” bring to Huckabees a delicate combination of warmth and wit. (Russell says the couple is based on Nick and Nora Charles, from The Thin Man series, going so far as to say that he’d like to make a sequel with them.)
As hard as he tries, Albert can’t quite keep up with the Jaffes’ questions, let alone their answers. “There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity,” advises Bernard, “There’s only the blanket,” meaning the blanket he uses to illustrate the connection of all things. Still, he’s willing to take a chance on this notion of a pervasive existential fabric. And I Heart Huckabees goes on to display it for you, 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.
That’s not to say that every connection works out. When Albert locates Mr. Nimieri (“That African guy’s a sign, isn’t he?”), who’s been adopted by a middle class white family in the burbs and renamed Steve, they all sit down to dinner. As Russell note, the family — especially the father (Richard Jenkins) — is structured as a familiar contradiction: “They’re big-hearted but they’re closed-minded.” Albert is perplexed, pushing them to consider “philosophical” questions, for instance, “Can I trust my habitual mind or do I need to learn to look beneath those things?” Here Russell interjects, “I love that question. These are the questions these guys ask. But we’re living in a culture right now where, I think, half the country doesn’t like asking questions or inquiring into things, they just want answers and certainties and that’s all they want. And I’d say the other half is open to asking questions and leaving things more expansive.”
The movie works its own expansiveness, through bouts of Albert’s emerging consciousness (Russell points out this is its own form of energy), antic comedy, Jon Brion’s inventive score, and a series of questions 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 him, though “People claim they want to know the ultimate truth about reality,” mostly, they’re content to “remain on the surface of things.”
Albert spends the film trying to work out internalized conflicts. To begin, he’s distracted by his ongoing battle with Huckabees and the loss of his Open Spaces position. He faces off repeatedly with Huckabee’s manager, Brad Stand (Jude Law), as callow and self-involved as his name suggests. He’s shifty enough to have hired his girlfriend Dawn (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.
Such 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 again confronts 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 (Wahlberg; “He’s got a big heart,” says Russell, as well as great instincts, intelligence, and thoughtfulness). A firefighter feeling existentially unbalanced since 9/11, Tommy 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, Tommy leads Albert into yet anther dimension of connectedness.
“Okay,” Tommy writes on his (actual online) 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.” 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 profound 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 (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, mud, and red punching balls 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.”
The DVD pursues such questions, partly, in a surfeit of extras — pieces and ideas that you might put together in your own way. Huckabees has been released in two version, as a single disc (with commentary tracks) and a two-disc “special edition” (with added extras, including a documentary, “Production Surveillance,” partly shot by Spike Jonze; Russell’s appearance on Charlie Rose, deleted/extended scenes; “Miscellaneous Things People Did”; “Infomercials, Commercials and PSAs”; and brief, colorful featurettes on production designer KK Barrett, costume designer Mark Bridges, Jand on Brion; as well as Open Spaces Coalition PSAs, Dawn’s Huckabees commercials; and “infomercial” about the existential detective agency; and a music video for Brion’s “Knock Yourself Out,” directed by Russell and featuring Wahlberg and Schwartzman).
The distinctions between the editions are partly quantitative, but Russell’s commentary track is where the action is, tracing a quest that parallels Albert’s own, at once mind-blowing and mundane. Trying to decide whether to “camp” with the nihilists (Caterine) or the infinite interconnectors (the Jaffes), Albert eventually comes back to the fluidity of coincidences. He never does discover the single meaning of his sightings of Mr. Nimieri. His situation appears arbitrary in the extreme, and yet, it is all about associations too (as Tommy points out more than once, Sudan’s crisis is a result of U.S. policies). He neither embodies nor articulates answers for Albert. But he does pose questions. Russell calls Albert an “existential superhero” at film’s end, as he has come to see at last, that reasons, solutions, and strategies exist through and in connections. However random.