David O. Russell has had a bit of a career renaissance as of late: the man went from having a bad reputation for fights with actors and a cancelled project to a pair of critical and commercial triumphs, a trio of Oscar nominations for writing and directing, several award triumphs for his actors, and a pair of films in production. Not bad for a guy who at one point seemed too weird for Hollywood. But much as I’ve enjoyed his recent films, I can’t help but miss the guy who wasn’t afraid to alienate a few people- or, in the case of I Heart Huckabees, most of his damn audience. The film has gained a slight cult following in the years since its initial critical and commercial disappointment, but I’m going to say that that’s not enough. I Heart Huckabees isnt’ just Russell’s best film: it’s one of the best films of the past decade.
Activist/sensitive (read: pretentious) poet Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is in the middle of an existential crisis. His group Open Spaces has been co-opted by Brad Stand (Jude Law), a rising star at a Wal-Mart like supermarket called Huckabees who plans on building on a marsh Albert wants to save. Albert is also caught up by a coincidence- he keeps running into a tall African guy all over Los Angeles. By chance, Albert finds the card to a strange service run by Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a pair of optimistic existential detectives. Albert hires the two to find the meaning of his coincidence, but Brad undermines him again by hiring the same detectives. Throw in Brad’s live-in girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), the face of Huckabees, a rival, pessimistic existential detective (Isabelle Huppert), and Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter fixated on a “deadly petroleum situation” and split between the detectives, and you’ve got a existential crisis that goes beyond personal and becomes universal.
To put it lightly, it’s an awfully strange film, one that takes several viewings to unpack completely. But that’s part of Russell’s genius in this particular situation: I Heart Huckabees moves briskly with the playfulness of early French New Wave and the brisk pitter-patter of Preston Sturges, but it also bears the influence of several Russell contemporaries, most notably Charlie Kaufman and Paul Thomas Anderson (who even share a composer with Russell, Jon Brion). It’s a densely packed comedy that still manages to entertain in the meantime. I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention a few of the moments I quote, constantly, to anyone else who’s seen the film.
(Albert reading one of his terrible, terrible poems): “Nobody sits like this rock sits. You rock, rock!”
“Dawn, you’ve been given everything by Huckabees.”
“These are the best tops around. Last time, last year…not so good. But now, THIS IS THE TRUTH.”
“Have you ever transcended time and space?”
“Yes. No. Time, not space. No, I have no idea what you’re talking about”.
“Can we do the ball thing everyday?”
“Do not call it the ball ting. Call it pure being.”
“Can we do the pure being ball thing everyday?”
“God gave us oil! How can God’s gift be bad?”
“I don’t know. God gave you a brain, too, and you messed that up pretty damn good.”
“There’s glass between us. You can’t deal with my infinite nature, can you?”
“That is so not true. Wait, what does that even mean?”
The whole cast is fantastic: Watts as a self-doubting model, Huppert as a comically grim French philosopher, Law as man whose charm and self-confidence mask self-hatred, and especially a never-better Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is usually at his best when he’s either A. working with David O. Russell (check), or B. comically belligerent (check), and his role here as a firefighter in the middle of a nervous breakdown brings out some of the funniest bits of his career (I crack up every time he mentions anything about a “deadly petroleum situation”). But that humor masks real existential despair: a quick line mentions that Tommy has been with the Jaffes ever since “the September thing”, but that’s a crucial character bit. He protests, angrily, when someone calls him a hero, and it’s largely because he feels that there’s nothing he can do to make a difference in the world.
That post-9/11 thinking affects everyone in the film, whether it’s Schwartzman with his hippy-dippy poems or Brad with his corporate overlord status. Even the detectives are in crisis, with Tomlin and Hoffman trying to ignore everything bad to sell a happy view of the universe and Huppert ignoring anything good as it will all eventually go to hell. I Heart Huckabees does sell a cautiously optimistic view of the world. It’s like a less portentous, more fun version of the everything-is-connected movie. There’s no real answer to everything, but there’s still hope at the end.
End note: cannot stress how great Jon Brion’s soundtrack is, particularly the songs. I’d rank it as my favorite of his works.