With Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman spawned a trend which, if it wasn’t new, was at least relatively unusual – the American comedy of metaphysics. There had been examples of this form before – Groundhog Day for instance – but Jonez and Kaufman seemed willing to sacrifice plot in favour of a joyous exploration of metaphysical weirdness. With Adaptation, the pair managed to add a deep sense of character to their strong brew of philosophical exploration, and Kaufman forged on to take this to new heights in his deservedly Oscar winning screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s in this context that I Heart Huckabees has to be judged as a failure, albeit an extremely worthy one. David O. Russell’s film tries to do things which go beyond even Kaufman’s narrative experiments and the result is somewhat incoherent but having said this, one has to add that it’s often highly entertaining, sometimes very funny and, ultimately, strangely touching.
The film has its basis in Russell’s time at Columbia University where he studied religion under Robert Thurman. Thurman is a significant metaphysical philosopher whose theories of the essential and indissoluble oneness of everything in the universe has been highly influential, fusing the all-conquering stampede of Quantum Physics with a kind of investigatory philosophy which goes back to the days of Socrates. Thurman is present in the film in the guise of Jaffe and Jaffe, Existential Detectives, played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, who are consulted by militant environmentalist poet Albert Markovski (Schwartzman) as to a coincidence which he is convinced is a fundamental reason for the mess his life has become. Markovski is trying to save an area of wetland which has been targeted for construction purposes by Huckabees department store, but his efforts are frustrated by the duplicity of Huckabees’ smooth sales executive Brad Stand (Law). Also involved in an increasingly chaotic narrative are fireman Tom Com (Wahlberg), who becomes Markovski’s buddy in the existential detection process; Miss Huckabees (Watts), a malcontent model who wants to do something more meaningful with her life; and Caterine Vauban (Huppert), a French philosopher who is in direct competition with the Jaffes
In a negative review of the film, Roger Ebert described it as “an infernal machine that consumes all of the energy it generates, saving the last watt of power to turn itself off.” That’s a very witty observation and to some extent its true but I would suggest that his metaphor is incomplete. It does operate on its own but it only comes to life when the viewer gets involved, immersing himself in what would otherwise be a mechanical process. You see, I don’t think this film is really very unlike any other romantic comedy in its essentials and at its best, it’s a very poignant and truthful observation of the lies we tell ourselves in order to get by when yet another day turns to shit. But it demands an involvement and commitment from the viewer which, you could argue, it doesn’t adequately repay. The rewards of the film are numerous but they aren’t particularly large rewards. I had a palpable feel-good buzz at the end of the movie but not one which was much more profound or complex than the one I got at the end of Tootsie, a film which doesn’t pretend to be anything except a very smart, funny comedy. So what I guess I’m saying is that to get anything out of the movie, you have to work. It’s not relaxing and sometimes what is on screen is close to complete anarchy. There’s certainly none of the formal elegance of Eternal Sunshine, a film so tightly constructed that you could turn it into an opera but which worked so smoothly that you were barely aware that it was stimulating your little grey cells. Huckabees on the other hand, explodes all over the place and makes you work in order to enjoy it. I suspect this is why people have turned against it. They put the work in and expect some meaningful revelation to emerge. When it doesn’t, they feel cheated.
This is the fault of David O. Russell and his co-writer Jeff Baena. They have so many ideas that they barely follow any of them through and some of the promising characters – Huppert’s sexy French philosopher of hate for example – seem to get completely lost in the mix. Russell seems to have encouraged his actors to talk quickly and behave like they are in a knockabout farce. This does create genuine comic energy at times but its exhausting and, ultimately, a bit annoying. The things which work best are the quieter moments – some of the duologues between Albert and Tom, the lovely bits of repartee between the Jaffes – but the writers don’t seem to have recognised this. It’s worth saying that this was also a problem in Russell’s previous films, particularly the often inspired Flirting With Disaster where the busier it got, the less funny it seemed.
However, there are still lots of delights in the film if you’re willing to work to get the best out of them. Principally, there’s the magnificent cast. Mark Wahlberg hasn’t been as good as he is here for years and he’s a genuinely likeable presence on screen, especially in the scenes with Jason Schwartzman where they can develop a comic rhythm. Schwartzman has the nightmare role and he comes close to pulling it off, although Russell demeans him with some very badly timed pieces of slapstick. Jude Law is very good, as he often is – he’s a chief candidate for the most underrated actor currently working in my opinion – and he has crack timing. Isabelle Huppert is eroticism incarnate as usual and seems very amused at how little she’s asked to do. Best of all, Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman are on strapping form and steal every scene they appear in. Tomlin gets increasingly angular as the years go by and she has lost the slight sourness which she developed in the 1990s. Hoffman is simply supremely likeable, jumping around with some great whacked-out pseudo-scientific dialogue and sporting a very natty Andre Previn wig. The film looks stunning throughout with Oscar-worthy cinematography from Peter Deming, who provides colours to die for, and some very clever visual effects which manage to visualise mental processes in an admirably straightforward and often witty manner. The tone is also often very attractive with Jon Brion’s acoustic score producing an air of poignant reflection which contrasts nicely with the action. The ending is particularly effective, a moment of transcendence which achieves a small state of grace.
It’s been said that I Heart Huckabees isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, although personally I think it is as clever as it thinks it is but basically it doesn’t need to be. But it’s only fair to salute David O. Russell for his ambition here. He’s trying to fuse metaphysical musings with a traditional screwball comedic form and he gets about half the way there before the film falls apart. The main problem is that, as I’ve said, the end result works best as something very traditional and leaves you wondering whether all the philosophising was particularly necessary. I should also say that it doesn’t stand up to repeated viewings as well as I thought it would – the obvious dichotomy between the intention and result becomes glaringly apparent and the fast-forward button becomes a godsend. Yet it remains something very unusual and daring and if it doesn’t entirely work then that’s not surprising. But isn’t it good to have a film industry in which this kind of thing can be tried and artists like Russell can fail honourably? I think it is.
As you’d expect from such a recent release, I Heart Huckabees looks fantastic on DVD. It’s available both as a single disc containing film and commentaries and a two-disc set containing a second disc full of extra features. I think it’s fair to say that if you like the film then you’ll like the extra features. If you found the film irritating and impenetrable then most of the extras will leave you with a similar impression.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is quite stunning. There’s loads of detail, some very strong, vibrant colours and no problems with excessive grain, artifacting or pixilation. The deliberately extreme nature of some of the visuals is very well transferred. Gratifyingly, I couldn’t see any trace of edge-enhancement or aliasing. There’s also a fullscreen pan and scan transfer on the flip side of the disc but I implore you not to go anywhere near this monstrosity.
I found the soundtrack similarly impressive. It’s a very solid and atmospheric Dolby Digital 5.1 mix which has some very imaginative use of the surround channels that immerses you right in the centre of the film. Dialogue is always clear – or as clear as it’s intended to be – and the attractively folky music score sounds great.
The first disc contains two commentary tracks. The first is a solo effort by David O. Russell and he comes across as surprisingly serious and sober but he’s obviously in love with the film and his actors and he has some very interesting observations to make. If you find the film even remotely interesting then his comments will enhance your appreciation. The second track is livelier, featuring Russell, Jason Schwartzmann and Mark Wahlberg along with, briefly, Naomi Watts via mobile phone. This is funny but superficial and more a friendly chat than anything resembling an analysis of the film.
The second disc is packed with good stuff, although as I said earlier it’s more a treat for fans than something which casual viewers will find worth a look. It begins with a half hour documentary made during the making of the film which is a bit of a shambles but rather an engaging one. All concerned come across well and Dustin Hoffman is particularly warm and funny. Rather more coherent is a thirty minute extract from the Charlie Rose show which features Hoffman, Russell and Lily Tomlin. This is an excellent discussion which gets into some quite deep philosophical areas and also features some valuable examination of the relationship between actor and director. I guess you either like the Charlie Rose style of questioning or you don’t and I have to say that I like it a lot. He seems to get more out of his interviewees than most chat show hosts. I think I found this the most enjoyable extra feature on the disc.
Next up is a generous deleted and extended scenes package which runs fifty minutes. Nothing essential here but some very nice moments, notably the scene between Jason Schwartzman and the kid in the waiting room. The selection of outtakes is a little more dispensable but they occasionally raise a smile. I liked the spoof “Detective Infomercial” which is so realistic it might have come straight off the airwaves. I’m a little more ambivalent about the music video for “Knock Yourself Out” by composer Jon Brion. It’s terribly wimpy music, suggesting nothing so much as a collaboration between Prefab Sprout and Norah Jones, and the video – featuring Schwartzman and Wahlberg in various guises – is amusing for a few moments but subsequently very irritating. It’s a joke taken way beyond its natural life-span. This music video is accompanied by a straight-faced commentary track from David O. Russell, who directed it, and some behind the scenes larking about which didn’t make me crack so much as a brief grin. “Miscellaneous Things People Did” is more of the same, five minutes of cast and director goofing about. More interesting are brief featurettes highlighting the work of the production designer and the costume designer and some comments from Jon Brion on his music score. There’s also a variety of pastiche Public Service Announcements for Albert’s Open Spaces Co-Operative and some commercials for Huckabees which will please fans of Naomi Watts. Finally we get both a teaser trailer and the full theatrical trailer.
Although the film contains optional subtitles, there are no subtitles offered for the extra features. This is an area in which Fox should aim to improve in the future – hard of hearing people like extras too, you know!
I Heart Huckabees is a likeable, funny film which is undoubtedly fucked-up, but fucked-up in an interesting way. It certainly demands to be seen and the vast range of reactions to it suggests that you will certainly not leave feeling ambivalent about it. Fox’s DVD is exemplary and presents the film to its very best advantage.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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