Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From The Vault: I Heart Huckabees

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert

Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 2004

*** (out of ****)

"It was as if somebody forgot to give the actors a script and said, 'For the next two hours, just go out there and do something'"
-2008 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee

"Pretentious" is a word that seems to have picked up a lot of steam in the past few years, especially in regards to film. Upon its release in 2004, this word was used often in describing the polarizing existential comedy I Heart Huckabees. As shocking as it may seem, between late 2002 and late 2005 I hardly watched any movies at all and I'm still slowly trying to recover and catch up on a lot of them. This one was always at the top of my list. People kept telling me I had to see it because, even though most of them despised it themselves, they thought it would be "my kind of movie."

For the most part, they were right…I think. It's a film perhaps best known for a couple of volatile on-set confrontations between director David O. Russell and star Lily Tomlin that were captured on video and posted on YouTube last year. I'd be lying if I told you that my primary interest in seeing the film didn't stem mainly from watching that. The good news is there is more to the movie than just that off-screen drama, even if there isn't nearly as much to the movie as Russell probably thinks there is, or wanted there to be.

It's a real "love it" or "hate it" affair yet somehow I found myself squarely in the middle on it. Part of me wanted to despise the film, while the other part really wanted to love and embrace it. In the end, neither side won. It tries to touch on deep philosophical issues that most mainstream films won't go near, yet doesn't really touch on any them at all. It's billed as a "comedy" yet after listening to the humorless commentary track from Russell on the DVD I started to wonder if he knew it was one.

Really, above all, I Heart Huckabees is a self-indulgent mess, but that's not necessarily a criticism. What it has going for it is that it's often hysterical and gives us a chance to see some big-name actors show off a humorous side of themselves we never knew they had. One actor, especially, who proves to have a surprising gift for comedy and gives one of the best performances of his career. I'd recommend this just for his work in it, but aside from that there's still more than enough here to tickle the funny bone.

After a series of coincidences and chance encounters with a Sudanese doorman, Alex Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) employs the services of a Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a husband and wife team of "existential detectives" to get to the bottom of it. They believe every event and every person in the world is connected in some way. In other words, everything occurs for a reason and has "meaning." Ironically, the closer the detectives get to unraveling the mystery the more Alex tries to sabotage their investigation out of fear of what they may uncover. He sets ridiculous ground rules for them, forbidding they go anywhere near his job, where he's having a major "situation." As the head of the environmental group, "Open Spaces Coalition" he's battling Brad Stand (Jude Law) a slick, smooth-talking executive from Huckabees, a Wal-Mart like department store chain, whose charm has enabled him to infiltrate and take control of Alex's group. He's made a sport out of telling people what they want to hear and being loved for it.

His beautiful girlfriend, Dawn Campbell is the spokesmodel for the company and is starting to have an existential crisis of her own, coming to the realization she's just a commodity valued only for her looks. As Alex's frustration with the Jaffe's investigation grows he meets another one of their clients even more frustrated than he is, obsessive anti-petroleum firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg). He's secretly hired the detectives' arch nemesis Caterine Vaubin (Isabelle Huppert), who supports a contradicting Nihilistic theory that life is completely random, meaningless and cruel and you just have to accept it for what it is. Tommy's liberal rantings reach a hilarious peak in the film's best scene, when he and Alex join the Sudanese doorman's adoptive family for dinner. Some of the stuff he says and how he says it will have you either in hysterics, just scratching your head, or both.

I'd love to say all these deep philosophical ideas come together in a big way at the end of the film but they don't exactly. I don't know if they're supposed to or if Russell even wants us to attempt to connect all the dots. The real joys in the film come from these memorable characters and all the actors' energetic performances as them. The character of Brad, especially, takes an interesting turn in the final act as he's set up as almost the antithesis of Alex. If Jude Law suddenly gave up drama it would be of no loss because he could have a future in comedy judging from what he pulls off here. His reaction to an important question posed by his girlfriend late in the film is priceless. He finds a way to make Brad completely slimy, yet still very likeable.

Even better is Watts, whose given the film's most memorable line. It's a joke that's almost too easy and we see it coming from miles away, but her delivery of it is so perfect. Watching her try to ugly herself up (as if that's possible) and run around in meltdown mode through the last third of the film is a huge guilty pleasure for those used to her usual work. She dives into this nonsense head first.

Tomlin and Hoffman have great chemistry together as do Wahlberg and Schwartzman, who's never been better as the super-sensitive, worrisome protagonist. Before I saw this even those who hate the film told me how much they loved Wahlberg's performance as this delusional firefighter. He steals every scene he's in and basically the entire film. Of all the actors here Wahlberg seems to know best that the character demands to be played with total straight-faced conviction. He's known as quietly intense actor so it's a thrill to see him channel that intensity outward in comedy. Who knew he could be this funny? Despite the film's mixed reception, I'm very surprised he didn't earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this. There are also some "before they were stars" cameos from Jonah Hill and Isla Fisher while Shania Twain proves to be a good sport by appearing as herself despite being mocked throughout the movie in a funny sub-plot.

It's a shame the Tomlin/Russell controversy has overshadowed the film because you'd figure a movie like this would actually be fun to make. I guess it's just a harsh reminder that no matter how fun and breezy things look onscreen, or how perfect the cast synergy may appear, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to deliver the finished product…and often involves many clashing egos. Judging from the two "incidents" available online I'm just impressed Russell was able to restrain himself from strangling Tomlin the way she was acting. I wasn't sure whose side I'd be on but after seeing the second clip where Tomlin inexplicably curses out my girl Naomi she officially lost me and I was on Team Russell. Ironically, after all that the scene never even made the final cut.

The movie made some more headlines this year when Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee adopted the film's title as his campaign slogan. The quote above, reflecting his hatred of the film, may seem true at times during the movie, but in actuality it takes a lot of planning to craft something this absurd and meaningless. Just ask Tomlin. In any event, this film was far more successful than Huckabee's ill-fated Presidential run.

David O. Russell already had two critically acclaimed films behind him before he directed this: Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings. The latter featured another storied on-set confrontation (this time physical) with star George Clooney. If this had happened once Russell probably could have recovered but because he had two huge incidents with major stars he was labeled as "difficult" and his career has yet to recover. To be fair, it's worth noting that Wahlberg has worked with him twice and both he and Schwartzman were able to stand him long enough to record a commentary track for the DVD without any issues.

Even though I'm giving the film three stars because it is really a mixed bag it's one of the more affectionate three-star ratings I can recall giving out and I can envision the movie growing on me. It probably plays much better on repeated viewings and I can understand how it's quirkiness has earned it somewhat of a cult following. The performances, its memorable visual aesthetic and Jon Brion's enchanting, offbeat score only enhance the overall experience. It is original that's for sure and the rare case where a movie's behind the scenes turmoil may have actually helped its cause, or at the very least, drawn more attention to the finished product. I Heart Huckabees may not work all the time, but I had a smile on my face the whole way through.

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