This is a movie that invites you to think about something else as you watch it and, as I watched it, what I kept thinking about was an elevator which has come loose from its cables and is in high speed freefall. The plummeting elevator image popped into my mind as I considered the career of writer-director David O. Russell, who somehow has managed to follow one of the finest films of the past decade-1999’s Three Kings-with one of the most confoundingly sophomoric.
I Heart Huckabees is a tiresome, supertalky head game which tackles the meaning of life while fumbling the basics of storytelling. Jason Schwartzman stars as the witless leader of a ragtag environmental outfit called the Open Spaces Coalition. He is engaged in a battle to save a marsh and some trees with-what else-a giant retail chain. Huckabees is a big box amalgam of Wal-Mart and The Gap whose marketing face is supplied by Jude Law. Law outmaneuvers his opponent by taking over Open Spaces using a combination of charm and ruthlessness and turning it into a public relations arm of the corporation. As a result of the conflict, we are informed again and again, each man has complicated, deep seated feelings about the other.
Not that this is the subject of I Heart Huckabees. If the movie can be said to have a subject, it probably would be Schwartzman’s decision to hire a pair of existential detectives to help him make sense of a series of coincidences which has him inexplicably puzzled. The investigators are played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman. The coincidences consist of his repeatedly running into a tall exchange student from Sudan. So much in the movie fails to make sense that many viewers may not notice that even this key story point lacks logic. Eventually we learn that the student works as the doorman at the apartment building where Schwartzman grew up and his parents still reside. That being the case, it would hardly be surprising that the young man would encounter him regularly but the film never offers an explanation for his fabricating a completely different story for the detectives.
On the other hand, maybe the movie’s subject is the metaphysical philosophy espoused by the pair. In a private eye parody that falls stunningly flat, Tomlin and Hoffman follow Schwartzman as he goes about his day taking notes, planting bugs and searching for proof which will convince him of his connection to everything else in the universe. Sporting a Beatlesque do, Hoffman jabbers continuously on this theme and often employs a blanket to represent the cosmos. On other occasions, he instructs his client to lie in a zipped body bag. It’s all part of a technique designed to “dismantle” Schwartzman’s personality though the film never offers an explanation as to how this works, why it’s desirable or even what it means.
At the same time, the picture’s true point may lie in the counter-philosophy promoted by Isabelle Huppert in the role of a rival existential detective from France. In her opinion nothing in the universe is connected to anything else. Life is meaningless and cruel. Except for when it’s messy, as it is when she makes ridiculous love to Schwartzman in a secluded mud puddle.
I won’t even go into the possibility that the movie is really concerned with the ho-hum fixations of its lesser figures. Naomi Watts is a sexy Huckabees spokesmodel who decides-what else-that she’s tired of being objectified. Mark Wahlberg turns up as a truth-seeking fireman who’s so anti-petroleum he rides his bicycle to fires. Its characters are so one dimensional, its politics so tired, its structure so ramshackle one gets the sense Russell’s had the script for Huckabees in a drawer since his college days and dusted it off during a bout of writer’s block.
There are a handful of mildly funny moments but the gab-to-gag ratio is mercilessly lopsided. Rarely will you see so many characters talk so much and say so little or so much talent squandered.
I understand that the director was inspired to make this movie in part as a result of studying the published works of Uma’s father, Bob Thurman who, apparently, is some sort of ex-Tibetan monk-style guru. I’m not sure whether that makes me feel better or worse. At a certain point, it’s possible to realize what you’re watching was inspired by the deep thinking of Bob Denver and not feel it makes it seem dopier than it already does.
The latest from Russell, it must be said, steers clear of Hollywood formula and brings a few cool names out of semi retirement. However, while the director may have ambition to admire and career-risking courage to respect, the sad truth is his new movie has almost nothing to heart.