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Films

I ♥ Huckabees

John Snider ponders time, space and Shania Twain in this review of I ♥ Huckabees.

‘Philosophical’ is a word that movie reviewers like to bandy about, but it’s rarely used in the literal sense. When was the last time a major motion picture featured an actual philosopher, or discussed anything explicitly philosophical? (Okay, I’ll answer that question: the Wachowski Brothers’ ambitious but deeply flawed Matrix trilogy. But I digress.)

Philosophers, take heart! There’s a new intellectual confection on the shelf: I ♥ Huckabees, the moderately successful 2004 theatrical release from Fox Searchlight Pictures, now available on DVD. Pronounced “I Heart Huckabees,” it’s the latest from writer/director/producer David O. Russell, the man behind Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings.

Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) is Albert Markovski, a mopey, self-obsessed environmentalist whose Open Spaces Coalition wants desperately to save a local forest reserve from the bulldozers of mega-retailer Huckabees (“The Everything Store,” an obvious doppelganger for commercial juggernaut Wal-Mart). Albert is an old-school activist who haunts shopping centers to distribute flyers to abusive patrons, stages public readings of his horrible poetry (which predictably underwhelm the masses) and disrupts traffic by planting trees in the dead-center of parking lots. Albert’s heart may be in the right place, but his approach is clearly out-of-step and ineffectual in New Millennial America.

Albert deludes himself into thinking that a compromise can be reached via his alliance with Brad Stand (the ubiquitous Jude Law), a Huckabees PR flak who represents the vapid, shallow side of the American Dream. Brad has doubtless memorized both Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. He’s a bright light in Huckabees’ middle management: a snappy dresser with a beautiful suburban home, a consummate prevaricator who entertains his co-workers ad nauseam with the story of a cruel practical joke he once played on country singer Shania Twain. Brad’s most treasured possession, however, is his Significant Other – Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), alias Miss Huckabees, the sexy and equally shallow pitch-girl who appears, scantily clad, in all of the company’s advertising. There’s no small irony that two of Britain’s hottest new actors should shed their accents to play the ultimately American stereotypes.

Oddly, none of Albert’s personal crises have anything to do with his decision to enlist the services of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, Existential Detectives played with infinite verve by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin. Albert wants this husband-and-wife team to solve his ‘coincidence,’ a trio of unlikely – and seemingly unrelated – encounters he’s had with a very tall, very dark African doorman (played by real-life Sudanese refugee Ger Duany). The Jaffes agree to take the case, but their approach goes far beyond anything Albert expected. Bernard is a mop-topped professorial type who decorates his office blackboard with Cy Twombly scribblings, and who believes in the interconnectedness of everything. (David Russell is, not incidentally, a devotee of Robert A. Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, a long-time protégé of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and dad to Uma. See? Everything really is connected!) While Bernard encourages Albert to explore his ‘perception of reality’ by using a body bag as a sensory deprivation chamber, the comparatively orthodox Vivian warns him that “to peer under the surface of the Big Everything” could “dismantle the world as you know it.”

And so Jaffe & Jaffe begin to look into every aspect of Albert’s existence. Their spying extends even to his work at the Open Spaces Coalition, where his fellow activists have been thoroughly charmed and co-opted by Brad. Albert feels betrayed when he discovers that Brad has also become a client of the Jaffes. Has the superficial Brad truly taken an interest in things existential, or is it just another strand in Brad’s intricate web of manipulation and deceit?

Things backfire on the Jaffes as well. To lend moral support to Albert during his ‘dismantling,’ they introduce him to his ‘Other’ - Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter who, in the aftermath of 9/11, has become obsessed with petroleum and its fatal connections with American culture. Tommy’s inability to accept the status quo has left him disillusioned with the Jaffes and driven him to embrace the teachings of a rival philosopher/detective: Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a jaded French nihilist who carries business cards emblazoned with ‘Cruelty, Manipulation, Meaninglessness.’ The Jaffes are vehemently opposed to any involvement with Caterine, a situation complicated by the revelation that she was once a protégé of the Jaffes.

Caterine forces Albert to confront his self-absorbed, unsympathetic parents over the pain they caused in his youth. She convinces Albert and Tommy that the suffering of ‘human drama’ can only be transcended through the pain of ‘pure being’ (a state achieved by being whacked in the face with a giant rubber ball).

So…which camp is right? The Jaffes, with their New Agey, infinite philosophy – or Caterine, who insists it’s all just a bunch of hooey? It turns out that neither can lay claim to the entire truth. Torn between the Jaffes’ meddling and Caterine’s machinations, the quartet of Albert, Tommy, Brad and Dawn conclude that the reality of human existence is somewhere in the middle. Toward the film’s end, Albert points out that both sides have been driven to the fringes through their incessant ideological warfare, until, finally “Two overlapping, fractured philosophies were born out of that one pain.”

Huh.

I ♥ Huckabees can also be overlapping and fractured; refusing, Zen-like, to give up any easy answers; but overall, it works both as quick entertainment and as an incubator for after-theatre discussion. The film requires repeated viewings to fully grok all the imbedded sight-gags, and there are a number of brief, yet interesting asides and cul-de-sacs. Albert’s meditative body-bag hallucinations are hilarious: think Freudian analysis illustrated with Monty Python animations. Instead of calming Albert and offering inspired revelation, these reveries always end in frustration and machete murders.

And while Russell more or less admits that both Albert and Tommy exist to give voice to his own activist tendencies, the film does not serve merely as a screed for his sociopolitical agenda. Albert and Tommy finally catch up to the mysterious African doorman, who lives in well-groomed suburban surreality, adopted by a Christian family who feel a certain smug satisfaction at having done something for him, but at the same time make fun of his ignorance of everyday gadgets like can openers. This episode culminates in a Red State-Blue State shouting match that certainly leaves doubt about who’s really doing something about the world: the whiny, self-absorbed Albert, with his entrenched bitterness and incessant sloganeering, or the well-meaning, misguided, shortsighted neo-Cons.

Huckabees’ dialogue is peppered with a weird combination of wry observations, zippy comebacks and bizarre one-liners. Vivian: “Have you ever transcended space and time?” Albert: “Yes. No. Time, not space – no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And midway through the film, Albert refuses to re-enter his body-bag meditation chamber, declaring “I’m not going back in there – it’s all hating faces that I have to chop up with a machete!”

Despite lacking a tight focus, Huckabees is a unique film, a rare and ambitious attempt to tackle the Big Issues in a way that’s fun and only rarely pretentious. It has 21st-century currency but is also strangely anachronistic: in some ways it’s reminiscent of the zany sex-farces of the 1960s; elsewhere it feels like an extended skit from The Kids in the Hall. It’s bright and playful – and contains some of the best ensemble casting to come along in a long time. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s perfect for the metaphysical set. It’s a great way to spark some conversation with fellow cinephiles, and a sure bet to enter the short list of assigned viewing in undergraduate philosophy courses. Now, if we can just get Hollywood to tackle Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Movie

© John C. Snider 2005

John Snider is the editor of scifidimensions, an online science fiction magazine published monthly since February 2000. He’s also president of the Fellowship of Reason. He lives with his fiancee in Roswell (Georgia, not New Mexico). editor@scifidimensions.com

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