I ? Huckabees: Existential comedy leaves viewers puzzled

by Matt Hill | 10/27/04 5:00am

When the credits began to roll, the audience, of which I was an assenting part, seemed not to know what to think. The woman in front of me, her hair doused in a particularly potent perfume, shook her head with a confused smile; the man awkwardly lying in the aisle with his head propped up on a rolled-up jacket stood up dazedly, scratching his sideburns as he moved toward the exit.

We had just seen David O. Russell's new "existential" comedy, "I Heart Huckabees," a feature seemingly desperate to have something to say -- something offbeat and profound, something to discuss over the dinner table or to debate late at night in the dormitory lounge.

Yet it is unclear exactly what "I Heart Huckabees" and writer / director Russell ("Three Kings," "Flirting with Disaster") intended to say.

Here we are presented with a movie that simultaneously draws on liberal-leftist discontent, attempts to attack corporatism, and ventures on its own terms into the very meaning of existence; but at the end of the day, it seems to come up somewhat empty-handed.

"Huckabees" is founded on what is, at first glance (well, and later glances, too), an enormously strange premise. We are introduced to Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) as he, attempting to salvage the environment, finishes putting caution tape around a rock. ("You rock, Rock," he says.)

He is working with a be-all, end-all corporation called Huckabees -- headed up by an exuberant Jude Law as Brad Stand -- which intends to associate itself with Markovski's environmentalist charter to draw attention away from its probable plans to convert marshlands into shopping malls.

Albert is also searching for answers in his life: after thrice running into an African foreign exchange student (Ger Duany), he seeks to find meaning in this--"his Coincidence." So he goes to see the wife-and-husband team of Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), so-called existential detectives who will probe into every aspect of his life to provide answers. ("Yes," Vivian tells him, "even into the bathroom.")

He eventually crosses paths with a bewildered and comically intense Mark Wahlberg, who, as firefighter Tommy Corn, joins Albert in a quest to discover whether all people, all things and the entirety of the universe (all being composed merely of microscopic units of matter and stardust) are in fact connected as a functional whole, or disconnected and essentially meaningless.

Sound confusing? Well, it is. "Huckabees" is quite possibly the most bizarre wide-release film since 1999's "Being John Malkovich."

Yet unlike that film, penned by the almighty Charlie Kaufman, Russell's script does not allow the moviegoer to be invited into either his quirky world or his somewhat mocking philosophy.

"Malkovich" lured us into a world of chaos, power, humor and pity, by way of a character, played by John Cusack, with whom we could associate. The characters in "I Heart Huckabees" have no demonstrable traits that elicit such association in an audience, and thus Russell's unique vision and the philosophy on which it is based -- though overflowing with ideas and originality -- seems static, removed, inaccessible.

It follows that the best scenes in the film are those to which we can relate.

When Albert and Tommy go to eat lunch with the host family of the towering exchange student, we see traditional views of life and religion clash with the philosophy discovered by the two protagonists. The result is a hilarious collision of philosophic obstinacy, pretentious one-upping and gleeful interplay between odd and potentially fascinating characters.

Yet these moments are, besides few and far between, only able to excel in spite of the rest of the film, which ultimately regards human drama as, though perhaps not necessary and important, at least inevitable.

This is why the potential of the film's quirk and utter outlandishness seems ungrounded, distancing and forced: it betrays its own conclusion.

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