If satire is what closes on Saturday night, then David O. Russell’s existential comedy I Love Huckabees may have trouble opening on Friday. I’m not being entirely pejorative here: Hollywood laff-fests have become so dumbed down that a movie such as this one, which actually assumes its audience has brains, is almost revolutionary—but probably box-office poison. Russell’s revolution is not entirely without partisans; there’s Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Spike Jonze, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, all of whom specialize in farcical cerebrations—whoopee cushions for the Mensa crowd. The problem, of course, is that these filmmakers often outsmart themselves, disappearing down a rabbit hole of conundrums and leaving audiences hornswoggled.
Something like this happens to I Love Huckabees, a movie I admire less for what it is than for the simple fact that it got made at all. Trusting a viewer’s intelligence is never a bad thing, but it’s nice to, well, touch the heart. Russell is hoping that the sheer volume of intellectual dither in this movie will propel audiences into the comedic stratosphere, but even astronauts know that there comes a time to touch down.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is an environmental activist who composes gnomic odes to America’s “dwindling open spaces”—which include marshland that the Wal-Mart-esque retail chain Huckabees is attempting to mall up. A frustrated do-gooder, he becomes obsessed with a series of coincidental encounters he has with a tall Sudanese man. This leads him to seek help decoding the riddle of existence from a self-styled “existential detective agency” run by married couple Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). Albert hires them to investigate his own life, and they take their job very seriously. Even when poking through garbage or peering at Albert on the potty, they never lose sight of quantum orbits or the Buddha. The no-nonsense Vivian, with her severely tailored dresses, admires Albert for wanting to look beneath “the big nothing,” while Bernard, with his shag thatch, is like a superannuated hippie high on the “interconnectedness” of everyone. They’re a metaphysical vaudeville act.
“The philosophic notions in I Love Huckabees are not much more than window dressing for some fancy slapstick.”
Like Preston Sturges, Russell loves to crowd the screen with babbling eccentrics, who come to include firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a client of the Jaffes who, in the wake of 9/11, is hung up on America’s petroleum dependency; Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a French nihilist who stands for everything the Jaffes abhor (she is fond of pensées like “The one thing we share is nothingness”); Brad Stand (Jude Law), a Huckabees smoothie who co-opts Albert’s Open Spaces Coalition; and Brad’s girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), the Huckabees spokesmodel who shows off her newfound enlightenment by ditching her bikini and donning an Amish bonnet.
Schwartzman—whose floppy bangs resemble Russell’s (no doubt intentionally)—is the dullish center of all this tumult. His last major movie was Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, where I thought he was equally blank. Anderson and Russell must like him because he’s a tabula rasa—you can project whatever you want onto his expressionless expressions. But Albert is a man whose head is supposedly buzzing with ideas. He wants to know how to be happy, but there is never any flicker of delight in his eyes, not even when he has a carnal romp with Caterine in the mud. This anhedonia seems less a function of the character than of the actor.
But even if Schwartzman’s Albert were more animated, we would still need a reason to feel for him. His predicament is an intellectual conceit, and that goes for just about everybody else’s, too. The philosophic notions in I Love Huckabees are ultimately not much more than window dressing for some fancy slapstick. Russell and his co-writer, Jeff Baena, throw around references to Sartre and surrealism, being and nothingness, but none of it really goes anywhere. I’m prepared to believe that Russell truly cares about these things, that the goofball absurdism in this movie is his way of making all that deep-think palatable—in the same way that Woody Allen, particularly in his early stand-up routines and humor pieces for The New Yorker, joked about the Big Stuff that mattered to him most (“I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”). What I don’t believe is that Russell has more than a passing interest in making us care as much as he does.
Because movies are such a sensual, exigent medium, postmodernist japes like I Love Huckabees, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums can seem especially soulless (more so than they might if they were novels). They share an almost abstract sense of space and design and character. Everyone in these movies seems to be acting within quotation marks. Facetiousness substitutes for pure feeling. Only in the Jonze-Kaufman movies, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and the Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have I felt the onrush of unchecked emotion, and that’s because behind all the braininess is a palpable anguish. There’s something at stake in these movies—a loss of identity. The only things at stake in I Love Huckabees are a few I.Q. points.
The latest entry in the Defeat George Bush movie sweepstakes is George Butler’s documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which deals mostly with the candidate’s Vietnam service and subsequent leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kerry has been close friends with Butler for 35 years and is godfather to his son, so it’s no surprise that this portrait, loosely based on Douglas Brinkley’s book Tour of Duty, is blemish-free. But it underscores, with ample footage from his rallying speeches and his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just how important it was for the antiwar movement to be represented by someone like Kerry. With his patrician presence and measured eloquence, he looked and sounded like someone the Establishment could listen to. Even Nixon and his dirty tricksters were impressed by his politeness—which didn’t stop Chuck Colson from declaring that Kerry must be stopped “before he becomes another Ralph Nader.” As if.