David O. Russell has balls. It’s difficult to imagine any other director making an “existential comedy;” it’s simply an oxymoron. How do you combine big yuks with a gloomy philosophy predicated on the belief that there is no God or eternity and that life has no meaning? Well, if you’re Russell, you take a few pages from Sartre and few from the Marx Brothers and you get i ♥ huckabees.
Jason Schwartzman plays Albert Markovski, an earnest but self-aggrandizing young man (not an entirely unfamiliar role for him) plagued by questions about a towering, gaunt Sudanese doorman who keeps popping up randomly in his life. Who is this guy? What does this mean? To find the answers, he approaches a husband and wife team of “existential detectives,” Bernard and Vivien Jaffe, played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin. They’re willing to take the case, which will include constant surveillance of Albert, even at the most private moments. Vivien explains, “There’s nothing too small. You know when police find the slightest bit of DNA and build a case on it? If we might see you floss or masturbate, that could be the key to your entire reality.”
Albert agrees to be followed, but asks the Jaffes not to interfere with his work life, where his position as leader of the local chapter of the Open Spaces Coalition is threatened by his taller, handsomer, more charming nemesis Brad Stand, played by Jude Law. Brad is an up-and-coming executive at Huckabees, a rapacious, Wal-Mart-like chain of superstores that use Brad’s girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts), as their vapid spokesmodel. During the course of the investigation, the Jaffes introduce Albert to his “other,” Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter whose post-Sept. 11 existential conundrum has driven him to explore the darker, nihilistic philosophy of the Jaffes’ rival, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).
Besides raising complex philosophical questions, Russell launches attacks against corporate America’s destruction of natural spaces, our government’s complicity in Sudanese genocide, phoniness and conformity, unthinking obedience to rigid autocracies, and the deference we give to the beautiful, yet the film’s first hour has the snappy, lightning-paced banter of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. Russell provides an excellent showcase for the performers, particularly Tomlin and Schwartzman. Tomlin hasn’t had a comic role this rich in years, and she sinks her teeth into it with something like ecstasy, seeming to have been socking away stores of genius in anticipation of the part. Her timing, her inflections, the mix of verbal and physical comedy, everything works brilliantly. And Hoffman, the star who most approaches legendary status, is generous in their scenes together, playing the straight man, keeping largely under the radar until you catch him in a reaction shot with an expression so funny it knocks you out of your chair. Schwartzman, though a far less experienced performer (at 24, he’s just over a third their age) matches their wit and timing in every scene; he’s smart enough to toss off his funniest lines as throwaways rather than trying to play them up.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent as well. Law makes Brad a fatuous and self-important climber, a man who’s risen past the level of his competence based entirely on his leading-man looks. Naomi Watts, who I’d never seen do comedy before, has an appealing deadpan that’s just right for her role, which smartly skewers the cult of beauty. The finest, though, is Wahlberg, who has cast aside his leading-man looks for a patchy beard and overgrown, uncombed thatch of hair. Tommy Corn is a man so caught up in the questions of his existence and worth that he can’t function; obsessed with his belief that petroleum use is responsible for all the world’s evils, he’s driven away his wife and child and become unable to do his job. Tommy is shown standing in front of a burning building, playing with patterns the hose makes on the lawn instead of putting out the fire. Wahlberg gives the character an intensity and (mostly) restrained violence that makes every line reading so edgy and full of dangerous potentialities that our only possible reaction is to laugh uproariously. It’s the finest performance of his career thus far.
Besides the generous helping of comic dialogue, Russell fills the corners of the film with hilarious sight gags, such as Tommy bicycling in his huge, belled firefighters’ boots, and physical comedy, like Tomlin’s skittering through the sprinklers on Brad’s front lawn or diving headfirst through the window of a parked car. It’s a dazzling high-wire act that succeeds magnificently throughout the film’s first hour. The problem with i ♥ huckabees is the introduction, halfway through, of Caterine Vauban. Not because Huppert doesn’t deliver a fine performance; she does, and she’s a marvelous actress to watch, but once Caterine’s nihilism is introduced, the film loses much of its comic energy (even Jon Brion’s jaunty, circusy theme music drops an octave and slows tempo). Tomlin and Hoffman almost disappear from the movie, and their liveliness is sorely missed. Worse, the philosophical issues are reduced to simplistic psychology. This character had a bad childhood; that character is insensitive to his brother; etc. It seems to suggest that all we need to do is live decent lives and treat each other well and everything will work out. This is reasonable advice, but, in relation to the larger issues raised earlier, it’s a dodge. The ironic thing is that the first half, focusing on difficult questions of existence, is consistently uproarious, while the second, more reductive half (the one that feels much more like a typical movie) is far less lively, as if Russell knew he had to resolve the issues raised in the first half in a way that an audience would approve but couldn’t quite bring himself to really invest in it.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
I ♥ Huckabees / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()