Where Were They Then?: I Heart Huckabees (04, A-) – Originally completed 6/13/18

Why this film?: Because I’ve heard too many good things about Huckabees to pass up the chance to watch it for a project, though I might have gone for a different film had I known about the smallness of Jenkins’s part beforehand. I’d like to say Flirting with DisasterLet Me In, and Bone Tomahawk were the runners-up, but it was over once I saw that Huckabees was in his filmography.

The review: What’s the meaning of life? What’s the point of it all, in a world that can be both incredibly generous but perhaps even more cruel? Who are we, and how are we not ourselves, and how are we connected to the people and things and universes around us? I Heart Huckabees is premised on these questions, with a plum mix of earnest exploration as its protagonists undergo severe identity crises and rivalries, as well as the utter absurdity of these questions and the length folks will go to to engage with them or avoid them entirely. All of this is wrapped in an ensemble comedy stuffed to the nines with delightful performances, a bananas script, and some wittily used technical elements, every artist contributing their own distinctive flavor to the film while operating within an impressively light tone and assured directorial hand from David O. Russell. Everything looks effortless, and yet the seams never show or get tangled in each other even as the film hops between sincerity and skewering, never coming off cruel or too serious with its heady subject matter.

Jason Schwartzman is our entry point into the film, as an environmental activist and poet names Albert Markovski who believes that running into the same African teenager three times over the course of two weeks is definitely a sign of something. Scrambling to figure out what it could possibly mean, he hires Existential Detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe to help him out, though it becomes pretty obvious that his request won’t work out for a number of reasons. For one, the detectives don’t see this as a meaningful coincidence, and they start worrying that Albert is choosing to prioritize this over the far more serious and impending threat that his activist group is about to become victim to corporate takeover from the superstore chain Huckabees, spearheaded by the charismatic Brad Stand. Even as their methods for Albert to connect to himself  – and by extension, the universe – prove effective, their philosophy about the beautiful interconnectedness of all things do not give him the answers he wants and drive him further towards the allure of Caterine Vauban, a French nihilist who may have already turned one of the Jaffe’s clients to her way of thinking. Soon it seems as though most of the important people in Albert’s life are involved in this case either as new clients or people of interest, and it’s never entirely clear how much progress any of these investigations are making.

All of this reads as a dizzying amount of plot to traverse inside of a film waxing philosophical about the purpose of existence, so thank god for the film’s oddball sense of humor, alternating between earnest contemplation and having a laugh at how ridiculous all of this actually is. Dustin Hoffman, wearing a hideous oversized gray bowlcut of a wig as Bernard Jaffe, can shove Jason Schwartzman’s confused but eager client into a human-sized gym bag to help Albert unlock his connection to his own subconscious, and it’s allowed to be an insightful step forward to the man’s self-actualization and just plain silly. Conversations with the universe are realized at a level just above basic graphic design skills as characters inhabit fake environments and have their faces disassembled into rectangular floating bits that intermingle with other bits of other faces. The same swimsuit photo of Jessica Lange floats in a black void with whole or disembodied characters who repeat the same phrases directly into the camera over and over again. One technique to connect to your innermost self is called Pure Being, and is performed by whacking yourself in the face – by yourself or others – with a giant rubber ball until enlightenment is achieved. This does not stop a firefighter named Tommy Corn from falling into an even deeper pit of despair than the one his nihilistic ideologies were already courting, and he expresses his dissatisfaction by turning his hose on his fellow firefighters rather than the blaze they’ve already put out without him. Sometimes the film’s best joke is simply to put Vivian Jaffe in the middle ground or background of a frame as she’s following a lead, and sometimes that joke is made even funnier by showing Caterine Vauban skulking behind her with no one seeming to notice her.

But these examples lead more towards the silly than to the sincere, and the heart in I Heart Huckabees is more than worth defending, especially since it blends so well with the eggheaded comedy that the film somehow carries off light as a feather. Tommy Corn’s drop into despair is treated with the same level of care as Albert Markowitz’s, as Brad Strand’s and his girlfriend Dawn Campbell undergo their own reckonings after Brad hires the existential detectives purely as a slight against Albert and with no belief they’ll accomplish anything until they confront him about the persona he’s constructed for himself at work. “How am I not myself?” he asks, and which Bernard and Vivian parrot back at him, turning over the statement while gently mocking it after Brad had been so cheerily resistant to the mere concept of everything the Jaffes stand for. This statement is made even more dizzying not just by the corresponding crises of everyone else but perhaps most weirdly dramatized by fans, boys we’ve met before, getting autographs from an advertiser on photographs of the woman who had that position before her a few scenes after Brad makes this declaration. Caterine Vauban may be bottomless wellspring of nihilism, but she’s still able to provide a massive insight into Albert’s neuroses once he accepts her tutelage, though she’s just as willing to stir up trouble for the sake of proving a point. By comparison to her immediate action, the Jaffes come across as both the infinitely cuddlier option but perhaps less effective as they force clients to come to terms with startling truths about themselves, their rejoinder that it will all work out because everything is in sync with everything else seeming less concrete next to Vauban’s insouciance and conviction. The battle for Albert’s soul, dichotomized between the universal interconnectivity of the Jaffes and the universal emptiness of Vauban, is fought between two worthy opponents, and yet the film concludes with Albert and Tommy having found solace in a place outside of both worldviews that Albert would nevertheless have discovered without them.

It is tremendous that any film is able to find such a welcome solace between the absurd and the intelligent, earnestly exploring its very conceptual ideas about the world while still finding room to set that all aside and make fun of what these folks are doing to themselves for the sake of understanding themselves or refusing that understanding. Jon Brion’s score is operating on this wavelength, floating between loony and contemplative like a Regina Spektor album and deliriously entertaining throughout. It’s snazzily edited, shot with elegant simplicity, and smartly dressed its characters for the job they have, unless they’re wearing a bonnet in complete repudiation of said job. As bananas as I Heart Huckabees frequently is, David O. Russell and Jeff Baena have written it so that we’re always able to track what’s going on narratively and philosophically, giving the actors hilarious lines and even more hilarious characters for them to follow through so many spiritual crises. It’s miraculous coherent in tracking long-term arcs and one-scene scenarios, in glorious tandem with Russell’s direction and the enervating efforts of the cast. And what a cast it is; everyone in tune with a bizarre and slippery tone while contributing their own flourishes to difficult material. Jason Schwartzman is an ideal straight man for the film’s wackier characters to bounce off while charting his own arc, and Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman smartly alternate between being the voice of reason and absolute loons. Isabelle Huppert is ideally cast as Caterine Vauban, crafting an unsettlingly poised and competent woman yet wholly in on the joke of a character whose dialogue reads like a parody of a Michael Haneke film. Jude Law and Naomi Watts are alarmingly chipper and even more alarmingly frayed as the corporate yuppy and his model girlfriend whose lives are unexpectedly changed by the arrival of the existential detectives, though her transformation is more sudden and pronounced than his is. Actors confined to only a few sequences like Richard Jenkins, Jean Smart, Talia Shire, Tippi Hedren, and Shania Twain are just as compelling as the primary cast members in the time allotted to them, but the very best, most brilliant performance comes at the courtesy of Mark Wahlberg as Tommy Corn, whose inability to get right with the universe is the funniest crisis of them all but just as weighty as the film’s most earnest breakthroughs. It’d be the kind of performance that’d make someone rethink their perceptions about an actor if his career wasn’t littered with so, so, so many nothings, but this is still the kind of artistic achievement that few actors can just pull out of their hat. The ensemble work is almost endlessly delicious, but Wahlberg has the honor of being its crowning achievement.

As much credit is owed across the board, none of this would be possible without Russell’s directorial vision. His handling of actors, juggling of tone, and navigation of theme is so smartly. If I’ve focused too exclusively on how I Heart Huckabees handles its philosophical leanings, its aim is just as sharp with how the game of hypocritical corporate bullshittery is played, how easy it is for lefty activists to get suckered by that game, and how quick they are to fracture without unity of approach even with unity of message. These ideas are able to fully inform its central themes as embodied by the character’s arcs, allowing them to be shaped by their careers and social standing rather than limply hanging off the central storyline. Russell is able to shape all of this without letting his control get in the way or become the actual focus of the film. Huckabees thrives on its looseness and spontaneity, and Russell is able to keep an unfathomable number of elements in play while making them as different as they need to be to rub against each other even as they’re all completely in sync with the overall tone of the picture.

So what does one walk away from when they finish watching I Heart Huckabees? Well, there’s the almost endless barrage of stellar performances, working magnificently with the heady and hilarious ambitions of a writer/director who’s able to balance the zany and the sincere without undermining any of the concepts that the film is contemplating, all while playing the whole thing as completely effortless amidst so many disparate yet magically cohesive parts moving together. Maybe you walk away with news ideas about life, if not new ideas about filmmaking. Maybe you go out and buy a big rubber ball or a human-sized gym bag. Maybe you wonder why there aren’t more films that are able to sustain such a bizarre premise through such an astonishingly light touch and with this much energy coursing through every last second of it. It’s a movie that makes you think about any number of things, sure to provoke any number of responses from the oddball behavior and hardcore debates about the meaning of all things, so get in touch with yourself and the universe to see what you thought of it. Or, yourself. Or, the concept of how no being can view anything outside the prism of their own relationship to it. Or, just have a good time. That’d be good too.

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