I Heart Huckabees Review

Troubled by the coincidence of seeing a tall African man on three separate occasions, environmental activist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) seeks help from husband-and-wife “existential detective” duo Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman). Explaining to Albert that and everything in the world is connected to everything else, the Jaffes commit to observe Albert at all times, to uncover the underlying pattern of his life and the nature of his trauma.

I Heart Huckabees (not all browsers will be able to cope with the heart symbol that is the second word) is not an easy film to summarise, for the same reason it’s not an especially easy film to watch, at least first time round. Writer/director David O. Russell and his co writer Jeff Baena intentionally keep the viewer one step behind them, and you have to work to keep up. As part of Albert’s “treatment”, he’s buddied with Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a fire-fighter struggling with a deep animus against the oil industry. Also involved are Brad Stand (Jude Law), a smarmy executive from the large Huckabees corporation intent on buying up the marshland that Albert is pledged to protect. Brad's trophy girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts) is expected to be nothing more than a pretty face, indeed the face of the Huckabees stores in TV commercials, but she yearns to be something more than that. And also there’s Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a nihilist French philosopher whose message is the opposite of the Jaffes: nothing is connected.

As you can imagine, comedies about philosophy are not exactly thick on the ground, especially ones financed by major studios. Comparisons have been made to the films of Spike Jonze and/or Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I Heart Huckabees also reminded me of Fight Club, a film that also deals with identity crisis - a specifically male one, as in all these films - and takes more than a few blackly comic potshots at a corporatised America. Huckabees has its roots in the teachings of Robert Thurman, a professor of religion at Columbia University (and father of Uma), whose philosophical standpoint is represented by the Jaffes in the film. Russell’s contribution is a quirky, often black sense of humour that finds space for the literally dirtiest sex scene of recent times and Jude Law breastfeeding Jason Schwartzman, an image that is indelible whether you like it or not. Albert is akin to the confused young men at the centre of Russell’s earlier films Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, though it’s no discredit to Jason Schwartzman’s performance to suggest that the film works best as an ensemble piece. Jude Law adeptly conveys deep neurosis behind a slick façade. In particular, this is Mark Wahlberg’s best and most likeable acting work for some time. With this and Meet the Fockers, Dustin Hoffman seems to have recovered a flair for comedy and the pairing of him and Lily Tomlin – they’d not acted together before but had been considered for Popeye and Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye – is inspired. In the meantime, Isabelle Huppert doesn’t have a great deal to do in a rare film for an American major, and Naomi Watts gets more out of her character than is perhaps in the script. Talia Shire, Schwartzman’s real-life mother, turns up as his screen mother and there are also appearances from Tippi Hedren and, as herself, Shania Twain. Peter Deming’s Scope camerawork and Jon Brion’s score are first-rate.

Huckabees is definitely a case of love it or hate it. It bombed at the US box office and had only a limited British cinema release. Despite its many felicities it’s an exhausting film to watch. Full marks to it for ambition even if it doesn’t really hit the highest marks, but I’m glad that there are some people in the commercial American film industry who are willing to aim high instead of playing safe.

Huckabees was shot in Scope and is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 2.40:1, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The film was shot with anamorphic lenses and, given that the full width of the image is visible, it is noticeable how Russell and Deming compose each shot so that it can easily be panned-and-scanned to 4:3 for TV viewing. (The opening credits sequence is a very good example of this. To be fair, this “TV Scope” framing turns up on just about every anamorphically-shot major-studio film made in the last quarter-century or so. Some directors hide this contractual obligation better than others.) No complaints about the transfer, which is all but flawless. The transfer is sharp, colours vivid, blacks true and shadow detail fine. You should expect nothing less from a brand-new film, but full marks.

The only soundtrack option is Dolby Digital 5.1. Given how dialogue-driven this film is, it’s no surprise that this isn’t a very elaborate multichannel mix. The surrounds are used for Jon Brion’s score and there are some directional effects during the fantasy sequences. The subwoofer fills in the basslines in the score, particularly noticeable during the opening credits.

There are twenty-five chapter stops and subtitles for the feature and all the extras, including the commentaries. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.

There are plenty of extras but this time quantity does not equal quality. First off are two commentaries. Although it’s listed second on the menu, the first-recorded is the one featuring Russell, Schwartzman and Wahlberg. Naomi Watts turns up briefly on the telephone. The second commentary is by Russell solo. His delivery isn’t the most engaging, but what he has to say is worth listening to. The group commentary is more entertaining, given the obvious rapport among the three men.

Four deleted, or rather extended, scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. These are “The Waiting Room” (2:49), “The Jaffes at Brad and Dawn’s” (6:23), “Catherine and Albert investigate the Jaffes, Tommy discovers suffering and cruelty” (6:38) and “What happens in the meadow at dusk (breakdancing)” (1:55). As usual with such material, it’s easy to see why it was cut – pacing reasons mainly – but these are more interesting than many such extras on other DVDs. Less essential are five sets of outtakes, running 3:08 in total.

A production documentary (34:35) is a behind-the-scenes video featuring a lot of joking around from the cast. It’s amusing in parts, but at this length distinctly self-indulgent, something which affects the rest of the extras. “Miscellaneous Things People Did” is four minutes and thirty seconds more of the same.

It’s not over. “Infomercials, Commercials and PSAs” speaks for itself, though the fake Huckabees commercials featuring Naomi Watts in a bikini will certainly appeal to many. This section also includes a featurette on Jon Brion’s music score (13:25) and a photo montage (2:39). There’s also a longer version of the Jaffes’ infomercial, which is certainly an accurate simulation of the real thing, including an appearance from Robert Thurman and musical numbers from Jon Brion at each “commercial break”. If you don’t have a player which can display the runtime of each extra you may well sit there and wonder if it will ever end, so let me put you out of your misery – it’s 28:47 long, and a joke extended well past snapping point. Finally, there’s a Jon Brion music video, directed by Russell, called “Knock Yourself Out” (2:02). Strange that in all that there was no room for the trailer for Huckabees itself.

I Heart Huckabees has the ingredients of a cult film: a quirky, non-mainstream sensibility, a box-office underperformer but with a devoted following. It’s certainly not for everyone. Given its limited British release, many people’s first chance to see this film will be on DVD, as it was mine. Visually and aurally it’s just fine, but the extras include plenty of filler.

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