Rated R - Running Time: 1:46 - Released 10/22/04

What Is Life All About?

This question has been the focus of debate, analysis, philosophy, psychotherapy, written works ranging from Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and general human discourse, probably since man first began to think in the abstract. Most people rely on religion to provide a relatively simple answer—i.e., it’s all in the hands of the Almighty; He has a plan which we cannot possibly comprehend, so we need not worry about it. But there are some of us, lying awake at night in an anxiety-filled insomniac flop-sweat, who need more. For those who seek a deeper understanding of why we’re here, why the universe is here, where it came from, where it’s going, what it means...the study of existentialism provides a fascinating diversion, if not an answer per se. I suppose the real answer is that there are no answers. But that is what David O. Russell’s funny and thought-provoking I Heart Huckabees is all about.

Written and directed by Russell with screenplay assistance from Jeff Baena, the film follows a young Los Angeles environmentalist and poet named Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) who has formed a coalition of like-minded tree-huggers to lobby against the proposed construction of a giant new Huckabees department store on a picturesque tract of swampland. Being a spiritual person interested in the interconnectedness of things, Albert believes that there is some significance to the fact that he has seen the same man—a tall, African stranger—three times in the last week. So he hires Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin), a husband-and-wife team who call themselves “existential detectives,” to follow him through every moment of his life and thereby ascertain not only the meaning of this coincidence, but the reason for all the fear, doubt, and anxiety he suffers each day. In doing this, they introduce him to their theory that every person, thing, concept, and experience is connected in some way, like the threads in a giant blanket.

The Jaffes’ investigation brings them inevitably to an acquaintance of Albert’s, the Huckabees corporation’s appointed ecologist Brad Stand (Jude Law, managing a flawless American accent), who has recently begun to take control of Albert’s coalition by using his good looks and oily charm to strike some sort of corporate-friendly compromise. They also meet Brad’s girlfriend Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), whose starring role in the Huckabees advertising campaign has made her face and voice practically synonymous with the corporation. When Brad meets the Jaffes, he is so intrigued that he and Dawn become their next clients. This causes Albert even more anxiety, so the Jaffes introduce him to Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), yet another meaning-seeker and environmentalist, who has recently been seduced away from the big-blanket theory toward the nothing-means-anything philosophy of a French existentialist named Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).

This movie is definitely geared toward blue-staters. You must be able (and willing) to think past the end of your nose to enjoy it, and if you are one of those people who goes to movies for simple entertainment or escapism, don’t bother—you will HATE this film. Apart from the fact that religion hardly ever even comes into the discussion, this movie forces people to think about themselves and others in a way that may make some people uncomfortable. But besides the philosophical ramifications of being versus non-being, everything is connected versus a random chaotic universe, etc., it’s a funny movie, well presented with enough tongue-in-cheek humor and interesting effects to amuse even those who are not inclined to ponder the deeper issues. Russell’s story delves into the existential philosophies with an absurdist attitude, which is really the only way to go about it, I think. And his casting choices are inspired—Hoffman and Tomlin, in their first film together, have an interestingly quirky and yet laidback relationship, while Schwartzman and Wahlberg also share a kind of yin and yang connection. Meanwhile, Jude Law is superior as the good-looking, smarmy American hypocrite, and Naomi Watts, undergoing perhaps the most amusing character journey in the movie, restates the depth of her technique.

While I Heart Huckabees may not answer all your questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything, it’ll certainly provide something to discuss on the way home. And it just might give you a few laughs, too, if you’re willing to let it. ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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