Friday, June 17, 2016

I Heart I Heart Huckabees


 
“So I’m interested in philosophy insofar as it’s practical and it makes you feel more alive. And it makes you more open-minded. That’s really the only way it interests me.”David O. Russell on I Heart Huckabees
 
Brad Stand (Jude Law): “How am I not myself?”
 
 
I'm not sure why anyone would elect to give writer/director David O Russell actual money in order to make a screwball farce about searching for meaning, featuring an existential detective agency and competing Philosophical schools of thought, starring a murderer's row of acting talent, and containing a bizarre cameo by Shania Twain - but someone did. Someone, somewhere, read Russell's insanely ambitious/flat-out insane script and thought "I need to finance this film!” That person is probably living in a box off La Cienega Boulevard now, mumbling to themselves about chemtrails. If so, their sacrifice was worth it because I Heart Huckabees is amazing; a bizarro cinematic unicorn grooving on its own brand of bug-nuts - a film that's simultaneously deadly serious in its intentions and wholly committed to being absolutely f*cking ridiculous.
 
[Read the entirety of my paean to I Heart Huckabees after the jump!]


 Huckabees belongs in the same (probably stoned) conversation with Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, and other surreal stories about dissatisfied persons seeking identity, but its goofy, candy-coated shell and aggressive earnestness seem to serve to set it apart from that conversation. That's a shame. Sincerity is often a tightrope walk in front of an audience that would like to see you fall, and I Heart Huckabees spends its runtime hurtling shamelessly back and forth on the wire, performing pratfalls and daring the crowds to throw tomatoes. It takes courage to be this sincere. Irony is safe. Irony protects against mockery. Sincerity is vulnerability.

Film critic David Edelstein characterized Huckabees as an “attempt to reconcile [Russell’s] Buddhist yearning for oneness with his pugnacious impulse to scream and throttle people,” as though these were two separate and distinct things that one would need to “reconcile”; as though they are not pointedly and inextricably united. That union and inextricability of seeming opposites is in fact a/the major theme of the film. Edelstein - and many others who have written off Huckabees in one way or another - literally does not know what he is missing, on multiple levels. It’s my hope that by talking about what I see in the film I can convince you to take a flyer on this very strange, very rewarding movie (this next part will probably read as though I've taken acid, but in fact I'm simply going to try and summarize I Heart Huckabees for you. Ready?).
 


Vivian Jaffe: “Have you ever transcended space and time?”
Albert Markovski: “Yes. No. Uh, time, not space... No. I don't know what you're talking about.”

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), painfully sincere, self-deceptive environmental activist and terrible poet, is locked in a losing battle with Brad Stand (Jude Law), unctuous representative of the Walmart-esque Huckabees corporation, for control over a grassroots coalition dedicated to preserving open spaces.

 In the throes of a crisis over this loss of control Albert turns to the existential detective agency of Jaffe & Jaffe (headed by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), ostensibly to help him determine the meaning behind a series of seemingly random encounters with a tall African man; the Jaffes quickly determine that Albert's got much deeper issues and proceed to start following him around and counseling him via an upbeat philosophy of universal interconnectedness that they refer to as "the blanket." This leads to a lot of loopy green-screen visualizations involving trees, bikinis, jet skis, and machetes.

…Still with me? Good. Onward.

In an effort to help him with his issues, and in a move reminiscent of recovery programs, the Jaffes pair Albert with Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg, in the single greatest performance of his career), a despairing firefighter obsessed and despondent over the world's dependence on petroleum. In his despair Tommy has turned to the writings of nihilist writer/femme fatale and former colleague of the Jaffes, Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who soon appears on the scene in order to lure Albert and Tommy to the "dark side" of philosophical thought, where the universe is cruel, nothing means anything, and relief from suffering is found by smacking yourself repeatedly in the face with a big red ball.

As all of this is going on Brad Stand and his girlfriend, Huckabees model Dawn Campbell (Naomi friggin' Watts) are experiencing existential crises of their own, drawing them into the orbit of Albert, Tommy, and the Jaffes, and these disparate threads converge in an epiphany about meaning and identity. Also, Shania Twain shows up...along with Jean Smart, Richard Jenkins, Jonah Hill (in his film debut), Tippi "I was in Hitchcock movies" Hedren, Isla Fisher, Talia Shire, Bob "I'm in half of everything" Gunton , and Kevin "I'm in the other half" Dunn.
 
 

Depending on your mood/outlook, I Heart Huckabees is either:

(1) a glorious and hilarious head-trip;

(2) an un/interesting misfire; or

(3) a loathsome mess.

I suppose you can say that about virtually any ambitious and heady film, good and bad, but Huckabees is the sort of special little film that inspires people to get weirdly, actively hostile over it, composing personal attacks directed at people who enjoy it; the sort of movie that people love to label "pretentious" despite its clear devotion to skewering pretension (Ebert wrote of the film that it may be “the first movie that can exist without an audience between the projector and the screen. It falls in its own forest, and hears itself”; not only do I have no idea what that means, I strongly suspect that he didn’t know when he wrote it)*.

*On a related note, there's a hyper-specific pet peeve I have involving the derisive use of the term "Philosophy 101" - as in "this movie thinks it's deep, but it's really just Philosophy 101." This line of criticism is crazy-making to me. If we lived in the sort of world where philosophical discourse is commonplace and where stories incorporate basic philosophical concepts on a regular basis this particular critique would not, perhaps, drive me bonkers. However, we do not live in such a world, and most people are only vaguely familiar with the sort of concepts espoused in Philosophy 101 courses. Given this fact what, precisely, is the problem with presenting Philosophy 101 through pop culture?

In its structure, Huckabees sets out something fundamentally true about delving into subjects like philosophy, religion; more generally, the search for meaning: what often begins as a detached desire to “understand life,” to gain clear-cut answers about “the universe” apart from one’s self, quickly turns into a confusing and often-painful exploration of the self. Albert begins the film by claiming he's looking for the meaning behind apparent coincidence. Bernard and Vivian Jaffe penetrate right past that motive and basically coax and coerce Albert into a deeper examination of his own failures and disappointments. His desire to explain why the world works the way it works turns back on him, devastating him, and finally leading him to a deeper, more personal, and more meaningful understanding.

Huckabees uses the language of farce and screwball comedies to explore some very human, very profound questions about meaning, the nature of existence, and questions of self, but it crucially never tells you what to think. It only asks that you try to keep up - which is no small thing for a movie this quick. During the opening credits Schwartzman wanders the labyrinth-like halls of the Jaffe's office building and catches fleeting glimpses of a man just ahead of him who appears to be...Schwartzman. That moment not only confirms that we're in a fable of sorts, it's also an apt declaration about/metaphor for the speed of the film, the state of Albert's character, and what the film intends to say to us about the search for meaning. It goes by totally unremarked upon. You either see it and get it, or you don't. Huckabees isn't interested in holding the viewer’s hand at all, while simultaneously, paradoxically caring very much about speaking directly to the viewer. The film takes off like a shot and dares you to keep up with its blistering gobbledegook in the most literal sense. It’s a film that demands multiple viewings just to take all of it in. On first watch it overwhelms you with its speed and its quirk. On second watch it alerts you to its depths. On subsequent viewings it invites you to piece it together and puzzle over it. And all the while it retains the same sincerely goofy, affable demeanor, as if to say “I know this is all ridiculous, but that’s sort of the point – just because it’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it’s not also important.” And that’s life, yeah? 
 
 
 

Tommy Corn: "Albert, what happened there is reality. It's cruelty and it's chaos. The detectives were wrong. What were you trying to do? You were trying to do a good thing, right? And look what happened."

The secret weapon of Huckabees isn’t in its zany antics (though they're great); the secret weapon is its core of genuine sadness. The film goes a mile a minute for much of its runtime, but beneath layers of goofy shenanigans and foofaraw and heady talk is legitimate sorrow. At one point Jean Smart makes reference to "that whole September thing," and the film as a whole exists under the existential cloud of 9/11 and a feeling of malaise and alienation. Each major character in the film other than, perhaps, the Jaffes is suffering. Albert is his own worst enemy - a slave to his own desire for profound importance, ridden by angst and uncertainty. Wahlberg is a firefighter who, in the aftermath of September 11 has become a burgeoning nihilist, convinced that petroleum is basically the root of sin (one reason given for the invasion of Iraq was, of course, their oil). He can't move past the idea, just as he can’t move past 9/11 itself, or his growing sense of life’s meaninglessness. Law and Watts are outwardly successful, respectively slimy and ditzy, but also much more than those surface identities would suggest; there are gaping holes inside the both of them that their outward cheer and material success only emphasize further as the movie rolls on. Their respective pain and confusion pour out in a slapstick torrent over the course of the movie. The film is hilarious, but good God it's also sad.

Cricket: “Jesus is never mad at us if we live with Him in our hearts!”
Tommy Corn: “I hate to break it to you, but He is - He most definitely is.”

Russell also sneaks complexity into his film unannounced. To take one example: It would be easy to judge the family of Christians in the film as two-dimensional and obnoxious; to a large extent Russell himself does just that. …And yet. It is true that Richard Jenkins, Jean Smart, et al are stubbornly resistant to, and angry about, being confronted and accused in their home. They're also smugly complacent about having "the answers." It’s also true that they're providing a home to a Sudanese refugee. That's very arguably more of a concrete "good" than either Albert or Tommy achieve. Their family is actively helping someone live a safer, more secure life. That their idea of living life may be facile and narrow is certainly debatable. Their charity is not.

Were the film not anchored so firmly by its performances it might float away or collapse entirely under its own ambitions. But in fact Huckabees is filled with great, arch performances from so many genuinely talented people. Tomlin and Hoffman are perfectly, wonderfully cast as a husband and wife detective duo dedicated to solving existential mysteries. They are warm, and funny, and weird, in amounts that feel carefully, consciously considered and calibrated. Jude Law has always been a quirky character actor trapped in a leading man's body and Huckabees showcases that fact to disarmingly winning effect. Law is a magnificent douche in this movie, shockingly funny and revolting in his smug obliviousness (the way he falls when tackled by Wahlberg is delightful, and positively Keaton-esque), yet by the end you want him to find his measure of peace and identity as much as anyone else. Naomi Watts channels a dementedly chipper obliviousness that sours into affectingly funny abdication of everything she's  previously valued; Schwartzman makes Albert too sincere and too transparent in his ego and his self-delusion to be unlikable, providing the audience with a flawed-but-relatable protagonist; Mark Walhberg delivers an all-time great, classic performance as firefighter Tommy Corn, whose sincere anger and childlike demeanor animate and elevate every moment he inhabits. Every actor in the film is hyper-specific with their choices, and tuned directly into Russell’s deranged zen wavelength. As a result the potentially overwhelming headiness of the script softens, warms, and becomes something grandly human.
 
 
 

Albert Markovski: “Brad, I've thought about chopping your head off with a machete many times.”
Brad Stand: “I've thought about hacking you up with an axe Albert, and smashing your face in with a baseball bat.”

Huckabees is calibrated as a study in opposites-as-partners: comedy rubs shoulders with melancholy, meaning jostles with meaninglessness, external validation butts up against internal revelation, and open spaces wrestles with the Huckabees corporation. Those oppositions are important to the story and, Russell indicates, to life in general. Everything works together in life, as parts of a whole and as oppositional complements, no matter how different the parts may be. The Jaffes and Vauban are interdependent; a coalition devoted to preserving land finds itself willingly enmeshed with a company devoted to paving it over. Albert and Brad despise one another, but they’re far more similar than either would ever willingly admit. The external validation that Albert seeks as a source of ultimate meaning is itself meaningless. The meaning that Albert needs, seeks, and finds is internal, based on his acceptance of life's boundless cruelty and life's vast, powerful interconnectedness. He won't find identity by chasing the approval of others - he will find it by embracing that paradox and so forging real connections, toeing toward humility, and living a conscious, open life.

Albert Markovski: “The interconnection thing is definitely for real.”
Tommy Corn: “It is! I didn't think it was! It is!”
Albert Markovski: “I know, I can't believe it, it's so fantastic!”
Tommy Corn: “It's amazing!”
Albert Markovski: “I know.”
Tommy Corn: “But it's also nothing special.”

Huckabees steers its audience through a minefield of complicated ethical and philosophical ideas in an effort to illustrate the importance of openness and humility. A breakdown of the film’s philosophical schools of thought is largely unnecessary, because the film itself breaks them down for us. The focus is on Existentialism, with Bernard and Vivian Jaffe championing and representing an outwardly optimistic view of that discipline, while their “former protégé,” Caterine Vauban, appears to represent the darker side of that school of thought (though, as we see at the film’s end, the Jaffes and Vauban are not enemies so much as they are necessary and complimentary opposites; both required in order to achieve a healthy outlook on the world and one’s self). All of this is firmly and clearly delineated onscreen. While Huckabees is patently out to educate its audience on these ideas, its largest, bighearted point is this: We can live our entire lives choosing to see incompletely - whether from unconsciousness, ignorance, anger, self-righteousness, apathy, or despair. We can alternatively learn to live with ourselves in meaningful awareness of our individual and collective incompleteness, with humor and humility toward the Big Questions, and with acceptance. In choosing the latter we can also consciously choose our meaning from a place of informed and conscious openness. Either way, life remains absurd; there is inseparable cruelty and beauty in that fact.

None of this matters if you find I Heart Huckabees to be a strained, joyless slog, which more than a few people do. Speaking for myself, I connect seamlessly with its weirdo sense of humor, it's go for broke, throw-it-at-the-wall mentality., and its disarming, unashamed sincerity. I suspect that, were people to give the film a fair shake, it would be far more beloved than it is. That requires you being open to the film, and willing to engage on its level, and not just once. If any of the above has intrigued you, go home, get yourself in an appropriate state of mind, and pop in I Heart Huckabees. Don't work too hard - just let it wash over you. Return to it a month or two later and work a little harder this time. See what happens. In a sense Huckabees is also a little like The Big Lebowski, in that it seems to get better the more it's watched. It's got layers to peel, and a sense of humor and a surfer/stoner profundity that repetition rewards. It's a secret gem of a film, and its generosity, bigheartedness, intelligence, and willingness to look very, very dumb for the sake of saying some very important things all make it well worth your time.
 




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