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Published: Friday, 10/22/2004

Movie review: I (Heart) Huckabees *****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jason Schwartzman, left, and Mark Wahlberg a scene from I  Huckabees.
Jason Schwartzman, left, and Mark Wahlberg a scene from I Huckabees.
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What it's all about?

Eh, Sisyphus?

Ask Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a pale, young disheveled environmentalist with a long arc of black bangs and a great big rock to call his own. The head of the local chapter of the Open Spaces Coalition, he plants trees in the middle of shopping mall parking lots and saves wetlands, rock by rock. He's deeply earnest and a bad poet to boot, and when he links arms with golden boy executive Brad Stand (Jude Law), of the Targetesque everything-under-one-roof superstore Huckabees, when he realizes he's made a corporate partnership with the devil, his rock rolls right back.

Brad, with a steamroller smile that betrays his intentions, wants to stamp every meadow on the planet with a Huckabees. And entire generations, says Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), Albert's friend, will never know what happens in a meadow at dusk. Which leads another character to ask: "What happens in a meadow at dusk?"

I'm getting ahead of myself.

Brad isn't the biggest conundrum here. There's also the question of that tall African doorman who appears by coincidence everywhere Albert goes. Albert notices him at the mall, standing in front of an apartment building, shopping for black-and-whites of early Bob Dylan, circa 1964.

He wonders if it's coincidence, if his life is connected to this man. Or does any of it matter? Is this world wildly out of control?

Not unlike this film.

Curious? Confused? Both?

Have I got a movie for you. The plot is thick and not easily explained. But sometime after Dustin Hoffman's nose floats off his face, but before Naomi Watts begins wearing a bonnet and dressing like an Amish bag lady, you're certain to conclude David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees is the strangest movie to jump through the flaming hoops erected by the studios since the Golden Age of '70s filmmaking. And this is a year that's given us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Passion of the Christ.

A screwball existential comedy with Dadaist tendencies that clips along like a revue does not come down the multiplex pike every day. (And may never again.) And whether you think it's as funny as a decidedly provocative film like Being There, whether you think it captures our scattershot mindset as well as anything since 9/11 (which it addresses tangentially), or whether you think it's simply the sanest picture of the year - and those are all possibilities - watching it is not unlike watching a talented filmmaker climb out on a high ledge, just to prove he can. Meanwhile, half the movie world slams the window behind him.

There, you've been warned.

Not for everyone.

Marvelous indulgent nonsense, to be precise. But Dylan is a clue: This is the closest (without intending to) the movies have ever come to capturing that wild blend of free-association and politics and ennui and slashing wit that marked his earliest songs. It's clearly personal for Russell, whose previous movies, especially the Gulf War satire Three Kings and the screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster, also showed a need to pull meaning out of absurdity. Huckabees, however, cuts out the allegory and goes straight for the absurdity, and the result is practically a miracle: For all its existential crises and deep thoughts, it's also a ton of fun.

Laughs go a long way. Let me explain. We start in Albert's shoes. He's jogging through a labyrinth of halls in an office building and lost, looking for the headquarters of Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman). They are existential detectives. Which we've all been to, right? No? Alright, an existential detective, it seems, studies everything you do and helps you answer the Big Questions: the secret of existence, the purpose of life. If that sounds very conceptually pretentious and abstract, even unbearable, Russell s genius is making us feel comfortable, and countering every spiritual disaster with a pratfall, a punch to the head, a wickedly funny line of dialogue.

Have you ever transcended space and time? Tomlin asks.

Yes, Albert says. Then: No.

Time, not space. I mean I don t know what you re talking about.

Exactly.

The cast members throw themselves in headfirst. But the

revelation is Wahlberg as fire-fi ghter Tommy. Until now Wahlberg

has always struck me as cinematic wallpaper, but here he

has a natural affi nity for churning rage into a laugh. It s a rare

talent. And as Tommy, he s the fulcrum. The Jaffes teach Albert

life is like an all-encompassing blanket; we re all beneath it.

They introduce him to Tommy, but Tommy has fallen under

the sway of a French nihilist existentialist detective (Isabelle

Huppert) who says life is about surrender, nothing matters. Her

business cards even read: Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness.

And I still haven t even gotten to Tippi Hedren s cameo.

So, again, what s it all about?

Everything (the possibility we re all connected) and nothing

(the possibility we re not). Which is only honest. But beneath the

slapstick is a sincere inquisitive nature. Hollywood fi lmmakers

have never been especially interested in how we feel. But the last

few years have jarred something loose in American directors and

with fi lms like Before Sunset and Eternal Sunshine and About

Schmidt, they ve developed a cinema that addresses that free-

fl oating sense of feeling lost and harried. Characters in Huckabees

keep asking themselves How am I not myself? Russell

is himself by standing on a ledge, go-for-broke inspired. And in

the end isn t that what it s all about?



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