The likely response most anyone will have watching the theatrical
trailer and television ads for "I ? Huckabees" is one of intrigued
bewilderment. The cast, it cannot be denied, is of the highest order,
and the whimsical style recalls the work of Wes Anderson (1998's "Rushmore"),
but attempts at figuring out the basic premise are fruitless. Now,
having seen ever last zany minute of "I ? Huckabees," it is still
safe to say that the film is beyond description, which isn't such
a bad thing. In a day and age of formulaic cinematic endeavors, when
major studios are virtually uninterested in anything that doesn't
have an easy "hook" and similarities to past financial hits, here
is a motion picture that joyfully plays to its own tune. One would
be hard-pressed to find another film even remotely similar to this
one, and the risk of being so stringently unorthodox ultimately pays off.
Auspiciously directed by David O. Russell (1999's "Three Kings"),
"I ? Huckabees" is a so-called existential comedy about finding one's
place in the world, making amends with the past, and discovering unadulterated
self-gratification. It also makes sharp satirical comments on corporate
greed, consumerism, therapy, and new-agism. It features occasional
fantasy sequences occurring within the minds of the characters, and
extreme physical humor that would be at home in a slapstick. The catch
is that "I ? Huckabees" is no spoof, and, barring its way-out-there
quirkiness, seems to be set in a fairly accurate, at times painful,
version of the real world, where one's happiness is seemingly always
offset with despair and tragedy. As the old adage goes, if you're
given lemons, you make lemonade, but what the saying never considered
is that said lemonade can often, and uncontrollably, be fleeting.
Such is the way of life—an incisive observation writer-director Russell gets just right.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a hard-working, underappreciated
activist of nature preservation, has been faced with a number of odd
coincidences in his everyday life. He seeks the guidance of Vivian
(Lily Tomlin) and Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman), married existential
detectives, in figuring out the meaning behind these circumstances,
not knowing that their help means being followed, spied up, and studied
in an attempt to get to the core of his very being. When Brad Stand
(Jude Law), an executive behind a popular retail superstore called
Huckabees, catches wind of the Jaffe's work, he decides to hire them
for himself in yet another selfish bid to one-up adversary Albert.
Also figuring into the story is Brad's spokesmodel girlfriend, Dawn
Campbell (Naomi Watts), who is easily swayed into the Jaffe's existentially
pure way of thinking; firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), another
earnest client of the Jaffe's, who befriends Albert and willingly
becomes his "other;" and the Jaffe's French radical rival, Caterine
Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), whom Albert and Tommy turn to to beat Brad at his own game.
"I ? Huckabees" is a wondrously bizarre curiosity and a grand entertainment,
a film that manages to be uproariously funny both in its broad and
subtle strokes, yet continuously feeds the mind in surprising ways.
There is a certain pretentiousness that lurks in the air, but it works
most of the time, offset by Russell's genuine gusto for the material.
Adding to the fantastical beauty and atmosphere is an outstanding
music score by Jon Brion (2002's "Punch-Drunk Love"), one of the more
memorable of the year.
A level of concentration from the audience is required in order to
follow its developments, to be sure, and there are a small handful
of foggy elements that could only be clarified with a second viewing,
but the extra work pays off. Outlandish sequences that in a normal
movie might come off as ludicrous and over-the-top suddenly take on
an unforeseen depth and passion once the viewer has gotten a grasp
of the characters' exact frames of mind and understand what they are
going through. This is particularly the case in two standout scenes—a
literally dirt-filled and urgent sexual encounter, and a sudden romantic
gesture that occurs between heretofore strangers and destined soul
mates in the midst of a house fire.
Credit must go to the actors, who took a sizable risk with this unexplainable
project. In the wrong hands and without just the right tone, it is
easy to imagine "I ? Huckabees" failing miserably, and the only one's
faced with looking silly are the cast members. For Jason Schwartzman,
his endearing turn as Albert marks his most accomplished since his
debut role six years ago in the brilliant "Rushmore." As the prying,
forthright, and oh-so-sneaky Vivian Jaffe, Lily Tomlin (2002's "Orange
County") is a comic delight who steals her scenes. Jude Law (2004's
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") brings a sense of regret
and soul late in the picture to his Brad, who at first, second, and
third glance comes off as pretty despicable. As Dawn, Naomi Watts,
usually seen in emotionally stark roles (2004's "We Don't Live Here
Anymore," 2003's "21 Grams"), stretches her abilities as a comedic
performer with success. And, perhaps most welcome of all, Mark Wahlberg
makes up for recent lackluster work in 2001's "Planet of the Apes"
and 2002's "The Truth About Charlie" with a loose and extremely lovable
showing as Tommy Corn. Wahlberg and Schwartzman make a splendid team
as they join forces to set things right and take down Brad, playing
warmly off of each other's personalities.
Really, there is no way to describe "I ? Huckabees" for those who
have not yet seen it, and readers of this review are undoubtedly still
scratching their heads. Yes, it is that kind of movie, but director
David O. Russell has a gift for making the proceedings all strangely
logical and never less than thought-provoking and delightfully gratifying
for his viewers. "I ? Huckabees" stands out as a one-of-a-kind original.
Those courageous enough to give it a try will find their efforts rewarded,
at times in the most unexpected of ways.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman