BY ONE ACCOUNT AT LEAST — the stately New York Times, striving for pep — life on the set of I ♥ Huckabees was a nightmare for everyone but director David O. Russell, who appears to have spent much of his time goading his actors into a state of hysteria that brought at least one of the movie’s stars, Lily Tomlin, to the brink of collapse. Russell recently got Buddhism, which in Hollywood can be an ominous portent of major flip-out. Still, he must have been doing something right. For all the reported mayhem, the finished product turns out to be a fresh, buoyant, mischievous and rather jolly meditation — if that’s the word for a movie as divinely nuts as this one is — on the meaning of life in an unhappy world. Undisciplined, teeming with big thoughts and overplotted unto exhaustion, Huckabees is a bitch to review, but tremendous fun to watch.
When first we meet Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), the ill-coiffed president of a sparsely membered organization of tree-huggers, he’s rushing along muttering the fearful, enraged and paranoid nothings that buzz like gnats in most people’s heads. Like the rest of us, Albert is mired in the vicissitudes of everyday life while wondering if there’s some larger story to give significance to the agony. Obsessed with a series of apparent coincidences involving a tall Sudanese doorman (The Lost Boys of the Sudan’s Ger Duany), Albert hires Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, a married pair of “existential detectives,” to comb through his life in search of metaphysical enlightenment.
This is an idea as inspired as it is insane: Think how wonderful it would be to have a pair of optimistic neo-Buddhists — especially as sweet and goofy and improbable a couple as Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin — tailing you night and day, sorting the wheat in your life from the chaff and nudging you to rise above quotidian reality and look at the big picture. For Albert, though, things get messy when Bernard and Vivian are hired away by his nemesis, Brad (Jude Law, slick and golden and oozing sleaze), a corporate image-maker who’s trying to take over Albert’s organization as part of a public-relations campaign for his employer, the low-end Huckabee department-store chain. And when Bernard and Vivian’s opposite number, a French-nihilist author of the self-help book If Not Now (played by Isabelle Huppert, sexy as ever but palpably ill at ease with English dialogue) shows up to play the gloom-and-doom card, Albert is only the first to begin unraveling.
More craftily structured than it might seem amid all this ruckus, Huckabees is held together — just — by the very polarities it embraces: Being and Nothingness, universal interconnectedness versus the essential aloneness of the individual, idealism versus careerism. There’s nothing particularly deep or new about the formulation — every yoga-practicing, Tibet-loving, kabbalah-plundering macher in Hollywood has that much philosophy under his belt these days. But I like the way Russell sticks his neck out, tethering the metaphysical pingpong to his disgust about the handling of 9/11, corporate tyranny, and even the bimbo-ization of women. Mark Wahlberg is funny and touching as a firefighter enraged by his country’s willingness to do anything for foreign oil, and Naomi Watts is lively and game as Huckabees’ perky, leggy corporate mascot, who sees the light and ends up in baggy overalls and an Amish bonnet. There’s a way in which Russell’s work is kin to that of other youngish filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, whose movies are also precariously built, energetically confused states of mind, often with only the most tenuous connection to narrative coherence. I like their ambition, and the way one thing seems to tumble after another in their fractured, disorganized movies, much as they do in life. And I like their bemused, neurotic and thoroughly American insistence on the right to be happy. Just about everyone in I ♥ Huckabees ends up melting down and emerging the better for it, including Albert, the very prototype of the dorky, immovable new American dissident to whom Russell tips his hat. I’m willing to bet he is one himself.
I ♥ HUCKABEES | Directed by DAVID O. RUSSELL | Written by RUSSELL and JEFF BAENA | Produced by RUSSELL, GREGORY GOODMAN and SCOTT RUDIN | At ArcLight, AMC Promenade