I Heart Huckabees
2004Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Jason Schwartzmann, Mark Wahlberg, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin
ne good thing to come of the October 8th death of French philosopher and “father of Deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida, was the headline that the New York Times ran over his obituary. There in those large bold letters they summed it all up: Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74. At its odd and wonderful heart, the word abstruse seems, relative to most we find in newspaper headlines, uncommon and difficult. Maybe it marginalizes the man. But, at its best, that abstruse captures, in a quick flash, all of the futile striving, pretension, and optimism necessary to make a square-peg big-P Philosophy—the real heady, academic sort—fit and work in our round-hole everyday lives. In the end, the guy’s stuff made people’s minds hurt and their brains steam.
Just a few days before that headline ran, a movie hit the theaters that in its own heady and academic way, also yearns to make our brains steam. David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees recounts the story of sad and strange people trying desperately to understand and explain their own desperation with some sort of neat and unifying theory of life. They agonize and question, look back on their youth and look into their souls.
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While their stories and its depiction come off as absurd and goofy, the trajectory couldn’t be more conventional. In the end, our half dozen main players all have their moments of clarity and shuffle off toward the rest of their lives at relative peace with the chaotic nature of the universe. That would be just fine, of course, had we too been so lucky. If only watching I Heart Huckabees were as satisfying as being a character within it.
We first encounter Albert (Jason Schwartzman), an environmentalist fighting against Huckabees, a fast-growing superstore, embodied by Brad (Jude Law) and Dawn (Naomi Watts) Brad’s girlfriend and Huckabees spokeswoman. Add to the mix a confused fireman, Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) and a couple of tag-team quasi-therapists, Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), who describe themselves as existential detectives. What follows is a lot of disenchanted chin-stroking and head-scratching plus plenty of confused debate over topics like the inter-connectedness of life or the cruelty of human existence.
There’s plenty of action too—lots of urgent running around with people chasing people who are chasing other people, a few fistfights, and some muddy sex. The rest of the plot is inexplicable, with little narrative strands here and there overlapping curiously. But Russell makes it clear that plot is little more than a formality. He prefers instead to have his characters not only running in circles, but also discussing furiously how dizzy they’re getting in the process.
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There are moments of hilarity, and brilliance—inspired sight gags, farcical confrontations, and enough random absurdities to make a bald soprano sing with joy. Wahlberg evokes some genuine empathy and Hoffman’s off-kilter joy is endearing. It’s not clear whether the movie is searching for a singular meaning of life or deconstructing the proposition that such a thing even exists. Either way it’s a serious mindfuck, and there’s something sort of groovy about giving in to all of that meaningless circular logic.
What’s disappointing, though, is that, while the primary topic of conversation may be the meaning of life and its many interpretations, the world in which I Heart Huckabees takes place appears just a little too lifeless. More than a few scenes feel and look staged, the colors come off too bright, and Schwartzman plays our protagonist-guide as Rushmore redux. The Jon Brion score is fun and quirky, but fine as it is, the bubbly tone often fails to jibe with the action on screen. And while the framework of an existential detective story is inspired and interesting, it can’t bear the weight of all that Russell wishes to address. Ultimately, he has strung up a huge canvas but run out of paint while just getting started. He alone may have gotten a kick out of the process—but the movie’s failure to meet its own expectations is sadly unsatisfying for the rest of us.
Of course, I Heart Huckabees refers to itself in commercials and on screen, not with the word Heart but rather its symbol. That’s something that Derrida, who suggested that language as a medium was contradictory and imperfect, probably would have enjoyed. A week after running Derrida’s abstruse obit, the same paper published an op-ed under the headline The Theory of Everything, R.I.P. suggesting that, at last, “the era of big theory” and ”paradigm-breaking new work” had come to a close. In that sense, Russell’s present-day failed attempt at deep-think philosophy seems better suited not only to another discipline but also to another era.
By: Rob Lott
Published on: 2004-10-25