I Heart Huckabees: David O. Russell’s Zany Farce

To watch I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell’s zany farce, is to watch an alert, often brilliant mind at work. But the movie doesn’t work. Billed as an existential comedy, Huckabees is a distancing intellectual movie with too small a heart and not much feeling for its characters.

Arguably one of the most original of the new clique of indie directors who have crossed into the mainstream, Russell has made three totally different pictures. Russell doesn’t believe in genre conventions: With each picture, he has experimented with new themes and new styles. He began with a serio comedy about incest (Spanking the Monkey) then made a smart, hilarious farce about identity (Flirting With Disaster), which he followed up with an innovative war film (Three Kings).

Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and Spike Jonze, Russell doesn’t repeat himself. I mention these directors not only because they all make personal and original films, but also because they share artistic personnel. Hence, actor Jason Schwartzman made his debut in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Production designer K.K. Barrett previously designed Jonze’s Adaptation. Costume designer Mark Bridges also did the costumes for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.

There are no easy answers in Russell’s universe. For him, the real fun in life and in movies is in the digressions. Can a movie be too rich in ideas and digressions Can a movie have too many characters for its own good Huckabees, a wild farce with over 20 speaking parts, makes a strong case for that.

The beginning is terrific. Convinced that a series of coincidences hold secret to life’s most meaningful issues, Albert Markovski (Schwartzman), an earnest and devoted environmentalist fighting to preserve dwindling open spaces, seeks the help of a detective agency that specializes in existential issues. Albert is at a crossroads: Should he continue fighting for his dream of wild marshes, or give them up entirely and start all over

Spoofing the whole notion of private eyes, one of the most prominent protagonists in American film, Russell offers a pair of middle-aged Jewish metaphysicians, Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), that enjoys their marital bliss a la Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man film series. Working in harmony, they would exchange a kiss in front of their bewildered clients if they feel like it.

The Jaffes immerse themselves fearlessly in investigating the mysteries at the core of Albert’s innermost lives. Despite instruction to steer clear of his work, they follow Albert around closely, observing his daily activities, questioning his friends, colleagues, and clients.

While probing Albert’s past and present, they uncover a conflict with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a handsome exec who climbs quickly the corporate ladder at Huckabees, a popular chain of retail stores. Huckabees had promised to sponsor Albert’s Open Spaces Coalition, but it turns out they’re doing it for their own PR campaign. Convinced that he is the key to cracking Albert’s case, the detectives zero in on Brad. But then Brad turns the tables on their investigation by hiring detectives himself. Beginning to lose faith, Albert rebels against his detectives.

Russell does well in contrasting Albert and Brad. Albert is dark-haired and sounds Jewish; Brad is a golden boy WASP. Abert is shy and insecure; Brad is a ladies’ man. In fact, Brad is now dating the company’s hot blonde spokes model, Dawn (Naomi Watts), a woman with her own identity complex.

As if having two protagonists in therapy is not sufficient for one comedy, Russell introduces yet another man in need for answers, Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), a seemingly tough firefighter who deep inside is a bundle of contradictions and nerves. Subscribing to an alternative philosophy, Tommy joins with the Jaffes’s arch nemesis, a sexy French philosopher named Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).

At the center of the comedy are philosophical battles between meaning and futility, interconnectedness and individualism, pure idealism and conventional success. But Russell is not above slapstick humor and sex in the mud. At one point, all the characters chase one another in a wild romp.

Intrigued by the idea of detectives who follow someone around not for criminal issues but as part of a serio-comic investigation about existence itself, Russell draws on conflicting strains of philosophy. The Eastern philosophy and its interconnectedness, which informs the Jaffes, is juxtaposed with Sartre’s notion of meaningless universe and the need for more profound individualism, which is represented by Catherine.

This description might give the impression that Huckabees is a total mess. It is not. In constructing their narrative, Russell and co-writer Jeff Baena work with a series of binary oppositions. Every idea and character in the film has its opposite: Albert versus Brad, the Jaffes versus Catherine, Jewish versus WASP, American versus French, First World versus Third World.

The loose, fragile nature of modern identities and family-inspired neuroses, two of Russell’s consistent artistic themes, are also evident in Huckabees. The characters are searchers who will not let “business as usual” get in their way of getting closer to the truth. Problem is, all of the characters are eccentric, leaving the audience eager for some straight counterpoints against which to place the loony characters. Failing to provide thematic continuity, Huckabees goes from one “crazy” situation to the next, showing how hard it is to maintain a frantic pacing. And it doesn’t help that midway, Russell drops his protagonist, Albert, and switches to Brad and his entourage.

There’s no doubt that Huckabees is a personal, uncompromised film, unlike Flirting With Disaster, which suffered from an explanatory opening scene, imposed by Miramax. Refreshingly, Russell’s comic attitude is original and gleefully subversive–he is not preoccupied with showbiz clichs or rip-off parodies. Thanks to his background and post-college digressions (including a trip to Nicaragua), Russell, unlike most beginning filmmakers, has more life experience to draw on than film school or comic books. As a filmmaker, he showcases a brash but not vulgar personality, making dangerously personal works that are too prickly for popular acceptance. There’s no mindless desperation to grab easy laughs, no concession to mass taste with jokes of bad taste.

For a while, the deliciously loopy dialogue and Russell’s gift for clever detours keep the movie afloat. However, despite sporadic wit and originality, as a farce, Huckabees leaves much to be desired. There’s probably nothing more difficult to accomplish in film than an expertly constructed and timed farce. More than any other genre, farce needs shading, delicacy, emotion, and successful comic rhythm. In classical farce, no matter what the characters do, it’s bound to turn out badly, not because they’re stupid but because they’re too obsessed with their own desperate needs.

The requirement of high-grade farce is to place likable characters in awkward situations and then to let them improvise their ways out of trouble, which Russell does sporadically. What Huckabees lacks is the inexorable logic that is the fuel of farce– what makes the ridiculous plausible and the loony funny. While never obvious or predictable, the movie never achieves the formal control that makes farce such a satisfying genre. Huckabees begins as classically structured but then quickly escalates into a broad and bloated farce.