From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Friday, November 12, 2004

Movie Review: I Heart Huckabees

(2004) Starring - Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert; Director - David O. Russell; Screenplay - David O. Russell and Jeff Baena; Rated R for language and some sexual situations.

I think that it's fair to say that every person goes through some sort of existential crisis at some point in their lives. One asks themselves questions like "Why are we here?", "What am I doing with my life?", "Am I fulfilled?". There are variations on the theme, but the general gist is the same. Resolving these crises is a sort of trial and error endeavor. Some people make career changes. Others find a new lover, or buy a new car, or some other expensive toy. They do something to try and validate the choices they make in life.

What if there were people out there whose sole purpose was to help people resolve these dilemmas? Not psychiatrists or therapists, but "existential detectives". People who would observe our lives in these moments of crises and ask us the probing questions inspired by our behavior to open new doors in our way of looking at things. In doing so, they could help us find the way out of our dilemma and get on with our lives.

This premise is not in fact a project out of a collegiate psychology or philosophy course, but instead the framework the plot of David O. Russell's latest film I Heart Huckabees hangs on. Like a bad suit, this premise hangs loosely, and isn't exactly the best fit.

What is I Heart Huckabees?
Jason Schwartzman plays Albert Markovski, head of a local chapter of an environmental group called the Open Spaces Coalition. Open Spaces is endeavoring to save a marsh that is the prospective home to a new development by the Huckabees Department Store chain. Albert's existential crisis stems from the fact that the Huckabees representative he had been dealing with to try and prevent the development is seemingly moving towards taking over Albert's own movement, in addition to making sure the development proceeds in some fashion.

Brad Strand (Jude Law), the Huckabees rep, seems to have it all. He's successful in his job, and the coopting of the Open Spaces Coalition may be the key to his making it to the big time. He has a beautiful girlfriend in Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), the official spokeswoman for Huckabees' entire ad campaign. Everything couldn't be better for Brad.

Albert decides that rather than addressing his larger issues, he needs answers to a curious coincidence in his life involving a gentleman he seems to keep running into. He decides to consult a pair of "existential detectives" to see if they can help him determine the significance of his coincidence. These detectives, Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), work not only towards giving Albert context for his coincidence, but also understanding for the other crises he's experiencing in his life with the Open Spaces Coalition. Along the way, they hope that Albert's situation may provide help for another client, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), who has issues of his own. They're also fighting to stay ahead of a colleague turned rival (Caterine Vauban, played by Isabelle Huppert) who has designs on helping Albert and Tommy with her own philosophy, which is much more nihilistic than that espoused by Bernard and Vivian.

Whew! That's a lot to take in.
Yes it is, and I think that's where I wind up having some serious issues with the film. There's subplots all over the place. It's like playing a game of pickup sticks trying to figure out where everything falls into place and how it all fits together. I can appreciate that that might be part of Russell's intent with this movie. It seems to me that some of what they're trying to convey with the story is that there are no such things as small coincidences, and that we need to make note of everything that happens to us, because we can't foresee how the randomness may impact us in a discernible pattern in the future.

The problem I have is that I think the whole endeavor tries too hard to be cute with the way it ties everything together. The subplot involving Caterine and her rivalry with Bernard and Vivian just doesn't have any resonance with me. When she comes into the middle of both Albert and Tommy's issues, the way it plays out and is resolved just doesn't work for me. And in a movie rife with absurd moments, the ones involving an interaction with Albert and Caterine in the focal marsh just played out for me in a fashion I found to be the height of stupidity. I think I understand what they were trying to do with the scene. I just don't buy an ounce of it.

I also just didn't care much at all for Bernard and Vivian as characters. Hoffman and Tomlin are funny enough in the roles for what is called for. But for my money, I just didn't see that they added much to the story to really make it zing.

Lastly, I just didn't feel anything for Wahlberg's Tommy. His issues, like Albert's, start out bigger than just what we see within the context of the film. When they start to get brought down to a more personal level, I just didn't feel like they came down in a way that resonated with me. Wahlberg has only one truly inspired moment in the film. That's not enough for an actor like him, who while not one of the top tier performers out there, has shown the ability to handle some fairly challenging projects.

That's a lot of the movie you don't seem to like. Anything redeeming about it?
Quite a bit actually.

For starters, Jason Schwartzman as Albert is fantastic. A joy in the vastly underappreciated Rushmore, this movie completely falls to pieces if he isn't compelling as the crux of all the various conflicts that get brought out in the film. He rises to the challenge in a huge way. Albert is without question the most sympathetic character in the entire film. He conveys the way Albert seems to be coming completely unmoored from his emotional bases with the loss of control over Open Spaces in a fashion that makes you sympathetic to his plight, even as his flaws are brought to the fore.

And as a foil for Albert, Jude Law's Brand is an equally compelling study in contrasts to Schwartzman's Albert. The facade of control and confidence he puts up is very nicely torn down in an exchange with Bernard and Vivian, even as Brand makes an attempt to try and take over yet another part of Albert's life (the detectives themselves). Brand could be the most complicated character in the movie, and Law puts it all out there for the audience to see. His transformation from the beginning of the film to the end is very easily the aspect I was most intrigued and entertained by.

Along the same lines, I thought Law's Brand and Naomi Watt's portrayal of Dawn Campbell was the relationship in the film that not only made the most sense, but had the greatest impact on my enjoyment of the film. Brand and Campbell clearly work on a superficial level, because in the beginning, they come off as the most superficial people in the film. But as each character's flaws and true motivations get peeled away and put out on display for the audience, I felt like their more dysfunctional aspects were about as real as anything I've seen of late in terms of relationships. By the end of the film, Campbell I think goes through the starkest transformation of any of the figures we're introduced to, and it's the most compelling for me by far.

Lastly, while I think there are a lot of random interactions between the characters that are just too clever for their own good (the aforementioned scene in the marsh with Albert and Caterine, and the lead in between Albert and Tommy involving rubber exercise balls - don't ask), there are a few "zany" moments that are very genuinely inspired. The exchange between Brand, Campbell, and the two detectives that triggers the beginning of Campbell's transformation is funny, pointed, and in some aspects truly sad. An exchange around a family's dinner table involving Albert and Tommy (Walhberg's best scene) that figuratively and literally goes all over the map likewise had an impact on me as a viewer that left me wanting a whole lot more. I really wish the movie delivered more of it.

So is this a thumbs up or down?
I think this one is about as sideways as I can possibly get on a film. There isn't enough there for me to feel compelled to give it any kind of recommendation as something people need to see. At the same time, there are enough positives in it to make it a kind of intriguing film with some serious potential, even if all of it isn't entirely realized. Which leaves me in a quandary as to whether I could recommend seeing it or not.

What's the number for those detectives again?