In his eccentric new movie I © Huckabees, writer/director David O. Russell riffs on the question of what It all means, if It means anything at all. His movie takes a stab at a somewhat nascent cinema genre, the postmodern alternative-reality black comedy, introduced to us by Charlie Kaufman in Being John Malkovich, and since then attempted by -- well, now that I think about it, practically nobody.
I Â© Huckabees also revisits Russell's own restive world of therapy-saturated neo-Freudian Oedipal wrecks. His wretched debut film, Spanking the Monkey, was about a young man who trades onanism for incest. His brilliant Flirting with Disaster was frenzied in a subdued way, as if its characters were on Prozac and Valium at the same time. His admirable (if heavy-handed) Three Kings was just plain frenzied, the way war often is, plus a little extra for good measure.
In I © Huckabees, Russell combines these two latter sensibilities to create a group of alter egos at psychological war with themselves and one another. His imaginative movie doesn't really amount to much in the long run. But scene by scene, Russell gets off some good jokes and a few hilarious set pieces, including what I can only describe as the dirtiest sex scene that I can recall in a major motion picture.
Let's see if I can explain how this all works.
Bernard and Vivian (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin) are existential detectives who believe that everything in life is connected and it's all for the good. Caterine Vaubin (Isabelle Huppert) is their former student and current rival who runs her own nihilistic agency on the belief that life is chaos and nothing matters.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is a young environmentalist trying to stop the burgeoning Huckabees (part Target, part Wal-Mart) from building its newest department store on a thriving wetland. He asks Bernard and Vivian to determine the meaning of a coincidence in his life: Three times at different locations around town, he bumps into a very tall African. The detectives also work on the case of Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter who, "since that big September thing," won't ride in gas-powered vehicles (he bicycles to fires), and who rails against blood-for-oil wars in a materialistic world (a theme carried over from Three Kings, in which Wahlberg also appeared).
These situations bring the principal wackos into conflict with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a cocky comer at Huckabees who infiltrates Albert's tree-hugger coalition; and Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), Huckabees' bikini-clad blond TV spokesmodel. When Brad hires Bernard and Vivian to solve his own crises, an angry Albert and Tommy defect to Caterine, whose motto (on her business card) is "cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness," which better represents the world as they've lately come to know it.
To do their work, the prudent Vivian and the more new-age Bernard -- who keeps wrapping Albert in a magical body bag that provokes freaky violent visions -- spy in plain sight on their clients, even when they floss and masturbate ("it could be the key to your entire reality"). The more taciturn Caterine simply follows them all around, waiting for disaster to happen.
I hope you can see where this would all be very amusing, especially for a bright neurotic fellow like Russell (who co-wrote his script with Jeff Baena). The first part of I Â© Huckabees sets up its premise. The second part turns somewhat sweet and plaintive when Albert and Tommy bond like motherless puppies. The third part, of course, goes over the top. It all leads to a heart-warming, eye-rolling South Park-style ending that I suspect Russell believes more than Trey Parker and Matt Stone do.
Just how profound is the pseudo-brainy tongue-in-cheek philosophy of I © Huckabees? Here's a sampling:
Â© "Everything is the same, even if it's different."
Â© "There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity."
Â© "Jesus is never mad at us if we live with Him in our hearts." That wisdom comes during a very funny dinner scene with Albert, Tommy, the African (a Sudanese refugee) and his adopted Christian family, which teaches him to collect autographs and play video games.
And by the way: In words, the title of this movie is "I Heart Huckabees," not "I Love Huckabees." That's just more of Russell's sardonic pop-cult deconstruction.
Some of I © Huckabees recalls Semi-Tough, Michael Ritchie's trenchant 1977 film of Dan Jenkins' novel about the self-help craze of the '70s. Now, as then, therapists urge their clients to "get it," although usually there's nothing to "get." But most of Huckabees just patches together things that interest Russell -- gestalt therapies, intimate relationships, the politics of oil, corporate greed -- as if it's a sort of mid-career summing up before he tries something new.
The acting in I © Huckabees is mostly a delight: Law, who is British, sounds perfectly crisp and banal as a young American corporate shark; Schwartzman combines deadpan and hysteria comfortably (his real-life mother, Talia Shire, has a cameo as Albert's mother); and Tomlin and Hoffman together bring an unflappable civility to it all. Only Wahlberg, who has a finite natural charm but little natural talent, seems lost among this impressive cast, proving perhaps that at least in the movies, everything is connected after all.