Thursday, September 30, 2004

I Don’t Heart Huckabees

Review: I Heart Huckabees, opens October 1
Appeared in The Harvard Independent

There’s a lot of sizing-up staring in I Heart Huckabees. You know, a slightly turned head with narrow eyes looking warily at someone who, in this case, is usually doing likewise. The existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (played exhaustively by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) do it with a feverish intensity, perhaps because this is the only way they can size up their inscrutable subjects, like the protagonist and environmental activist Albert Markovski (Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman). He is prone to fits of cosmic frustration over the true relevance of saving trees or how best to organize against the corporate conglomerate Huckabees, which is threatening to build on a precious swamp. But his real problem, naturally, is the gangly seven-foot Sudanese refugee he keeps encountering around town.

To the detectives, this is no mere coincidence. “Everything is connected and everything matters,” is Dustin Hoffman’s mantra, (or at other times, “everything is the same even if it’s different”, etc.) ideas he forces on his subjects through repetition, meditation sessions in a body bag, demonstrations with a white blanket. In writer-director David O. Russell’s logic, the sophistry is meant to be funny, but Mr. Hoffman’s quirky, happy-go-lucky idealism, like the nihilism of his sultry Sartreist archrival Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), manages to imbue them with some profundity too.

Russell has already proved capable of combining the heavy and light, the intelligent and the playful, to create films that fudge the line between surreal and documentary. 1996’s semi-slapstick Flirting with Disaster, which channeled Woody Allen through acid, is the finest and most thoughtful of those Ben Stiller “oh my god, why is this happening to me!?” movies. And then there’s Russell’s inspired and beautiful 1999 buddy action-comedy Three Kings turned the wasteland of post-Desert Storm Iraq into a fiery playground for meditations on American cultural influence, foreign policy, and an oil-seeped, image-driven war machine. Any questions about Russell’s commitment to the serious might be settled by his forthcoming documentary, Soldiers Pay, culled from a series of provocative interviews with American soldiers and some of the actors from Three Kings, who are actual Iraqi refugees.

Global concerns underlie I Heart Huckabees too: corporate conglomeration, the environment, personal responsibility, the aftermath of 9/11, marriage and family are all given shout-outs here. But amidst the film’s simultaneous spiritual obsessions and quirky situation comedy, shout-outs are all these topics get. Russell’s approach is surrealist, calling the viewer’s attention to unlikely combinations of thoughts and images that do not match and can just barely be sustained. But here the effect is only amusing for so long; unlike the Magritte painting that hangs in Albert’s office, the more you stare at the mix, the more exhausting it becomes. In the movie’s flawed surreality, hilarious one-liners, smart philosophical questions and powerful performances (especially from Jude Law and Naomi Watts, who play the golden boy Huckabees executive and his model girlfriend) might give us a refreshing Hollywood product, but they don’t add up to anything very emotional or intelligent. And in the case of a recent screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, they do add up to more than a few audience goers stumbling for the exit, a near-sacrilege at preview screenings, especially when the director and star are present (they were).

Decoding what a clever movie is trying to do and how it does it is always part of the fun, but with a movie only half-clever it’s more often a waste of time, a job we ought to leave to movie critics if they are so bored. My idea: the movie about the absurdity and enormity of life, but also about the absurdity of trying to make sense of that absurdity, and also about the absurdity of trying not to care about that absurdity too. With such scattered intent, scenes can be both protracted and empty, and the film isn’t quite sure not to know how to be serious when it is trying to be, or how to be very funny either. Ultimately, it feels like one of those overly drawn out jokes, almost funnier for its persistence and tedium than its content, and even then not that funny. The movie’s ultimate irony of course is that life itself is the joke, but that perhaps by telling the joke we can assert some order over life’s absurdity.

In a sense then, the movie operates the way some modernist poets wrote: in a world in which subjectivity is washed over by industrialization, corporations, and environmental destruction, the poem balances ideals with cynicism and, in so doing, leaves the audience both stunned and lost, searching for more personal meanings if any can be found at all. But it’s the postmodern influence—the non-reaction reaction to the hypnotic power of globalization and contemporary affairs, (a time in which “everything’s the same even if its different”)—that’s ultimately louder amidst all the philosophical bricolage and surrealist imagery. In the film’s self-canceling metaphysical calculus, the only thing lamentable about life is lament itself. The rest of living, like I Heart Huckabees, is a lot of confusion that, after we’re done staring at, trying to size up and figure out, we might simply, somehow, find a way to enjoy. Or at least ignore, and go back to our own more compelling, more surreal lives.