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I Heart Huckabees

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/09/04 17:35:13

"I don't 'Heart' pointless quirks."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Very few directors have dared to undertake a project this ambitious in the history of film. By "ambitious" I mean that director and co-writer David O. Russell has made a movie in which there are a number of principal characters, and none of them are actually integral to the story.

For that matter, the story isn't integral to the story. In fact, the only things that actually seem to matter in I Heart Huckabees are the quirks. Russell appears to be playing a game of oneupmanship with himself as regards the film's weirdness quotient, which starts out fairly high and climbs only higher for the better part of two hours.

Trying to explain the characters' roles seems like a relatively fruitless endeavor. Albert (Jason Schwartzman) goes to two "existential detectives", the husband and wife team of Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), to investigate a series of coincidences he's been having. It turns out that a lot of Albert's problems can be traced to his jealousy of Brad (Jude Law), an executive at Huckabees, "the everything store." Brad is dating spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Albert falls in with Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), who is abandoning Bernard and Vivian's philosophy in favor of the nihilistic approach of Caterine (Isabelle Huppert).

The question is, what do all these things really have to do with each other? Russell does a decent enough job of intertwining all the different stories, but where everything is leading is a bit thornier. The plot, with its pop-philosophical machinations, just seems like a vehicle for the increasingly bizarre setpieces (perhaps the peak of the film's insanity comes in a scene in which Albert and Caterine engage in foreplay by covering each other in mud in the middle of a marsh).

Even if we decide to take the plot at more or less face value and not merely as a conduit for the strange, it's unclear whether or not Russell intends the audience to buy into what his characters are pushing. Is everyone in the universe connected? Is everything important, or is nothing important?

It's kind of hard to take the director of the cynical Three Kings at face value here. Things spin out of control for a while, but Bernard and Vivian's philosophy, which the film seems to be pushing as closest to the right one, is pretty light and fluffy, and frankly sounds like a pretty standard bunch of New Age mumbo-jumbo. If Russell is poking fun at his characters, though, there's very little indication to be found, except insofar as it feels surprising that the film would be as saccharine as it would have to be if it's taking them seriously.

When Huckabees finally winds to a close, it proves unsatisfying. What has Albert learned? If he's learned anything, how did he actually manage to learn it, and what does it really mean in the context of the plot? Very little in Huckabees seems capable of justifying the craziness, save perhaps a couple of scenes near the end that pay off the relationship between Albert and Brad. These would be better if they really tied the film together, but instead this strand feels like a weak justification for doing a lot of quirky stuff and calling it existentialism.

It would also help if Russell had ever given any reason to care about any of the characters, but he never seems interested in doing that. These characters aren't people, they're cutouts, designed not to mirror real life but to act in a 21st-century version of an Ionesco play. Why Russell doesn't feel the audience should be able to identify with anyone onscreen is unclear, but it bolsters the hypothesis that he's just out to be weird, and that the philosophical window dressing is just that.

Despite all this, I Heart Huckabees is relatively enjoyable to watch, in a general sense. The actors are by and large at the top of their games, which always helps. The plot may be a swirling mass of nonsense, but many of the individual scenes are fun on their own merit, even if they don't fit well into any overarching system.

Still, in the end, there just doesn't seem to be anything behind Huckabees. A triumph of silliness over substance, it manages to have some fun on a small scale, but there's nothing to prop up the best of the zany setpieces except more setpieces that aren't as good. Russell may have set out to make a film about philosophy, but I Heart Huckabees is long on quirk and much too short on ideas.

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