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30.10.04

I ♥ Huckabees...or Do You?

I remember sitting around in a friend's college dorm room at Michigan State while she was entertaining one of her intellectual friends. Insisting on riffing on any subject he thought would elude my conversational parameters of intelligence (not all that difficult, really) he didn't find it beneath him to tell a joke. "How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?" There was a silence and then he answered himself. "Fish."

They both rolled over with laughter in appreciation while I sat there wondering if there was more to the joke than I realized. This very sensation came back to me while I was watching I ♥ Huckabees, David O. Russell's current cinematic outing, in the theater. I have enjoyed Russell's films in the past, starting with Spanking the Monkey and then Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings (the latter proving to be my favorite). His movies always risk pushing some indecipherable edge and toppling into pure chaos and yet manage to hedge the line close enough to deliver as a solid movie.

Huckabees is no different. Russell is attempting to deliver perhaps the first existential comedy the world has ever seen. In contrast to films such as this year's What the *bleep* do we know?, Russell doesn't want simply to analyze or pontificate on metaphysics and reality, he wants to balloon it into a joke with wacky characters, gumball color schemes, and a lot of physical comedy. The result is a somewhat muddled, yet quite trackable, series of sugarcoated philosophical quandaries that go down like chocolate-covered fish. Russell has always had a penchant for rambling and overlapping characters. In Flirting with Disaster, half the fun is watching it again and picking up so many of the thrown-away lines that were either buried or simply mumbled in the first viewing. The danger in this type of ensemble rant is that you distance the audience from individual relationships with each character. The lack of close-ups and isolating lines is that you lose specificity.

My feeling throughout Huckabees was one of removed amusement. I was in constant appreciation of the writer/director's ability to embrace absurdity and a nonlinear story and simply trudge forward without asking the audience's permission. The story centers around Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), who begins the film in an expletive-jammed inner rant of self-doubt. (Somehow one gets the feeling this comes directly from the director's own mental wellspring, as reports have had him having and causing recurring mental breakdowns on sets.) He is the head of an organization titled "Open Spaces" (get it?), which was started to prevent the overwhelming and pervading onslaught of urban sprawl. Albert has decided to stand his ground on a rock by reading a poem ("You rock, rock.") but is filled with such a quandary of purpose he immediately dashes to the Existential Detectives (played goofily and lovingly by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin).

There Albert meets Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), who is a firefighter in existential torture of meaninglessness after "that September thing." Together they struggle to embrace the idea of universal "connectedness" while the detectives follow them through their lives to see what their disconnect derives from. Along the way they meet adversity in the form of Brad (Jude Law), a philosophical poser and also the head of I ♥ Huckabees industries (a large corporation of board rooms and glossy commerciality, as well as a big contributor to urban sprawl). Brad thinks he can outsmart his adversaries by adopting faux-existential dilemmas and using the detectives against Albert until they have served his purpose.

When "the answers" of the detectives do not provide results as Albert and Tommy desire, they decide to go to the other side. Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) preys upon Albert and Tommy in their moment of doubt and sways them to the philosophy of the "disconnect," that each moment has no relation to the next. She is an ex-student of the detectives and their arch enemy. The three will battle for the boys' philosophical futures and perhaps explain the nature of their existence.

Russell uses existentialism like many people in Hollywood use eastern philosophy. The words Zen, Buddhism, and Tao are tossed around like buzzwords in a corporate strategy guide. Embracing the shallowness of materialism while simultaneously spouting the virtues of nothingness is ridiculous. The problem here is that while the joke is very clever and to be lauded for its loftiness in ambition, it doesn't make you laugh.

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