Judge Brett Cullum heart I Heart Huckabees.
Vivian Jaffe: How's the sex?
A movie so gleefully obtuse, many theatres couldn't even get the name right. (When I Heart Huckabees went out to multiplexes around the country, many theatre managers mistakenly put "I Love Huckabees" up on their marquees, because all the press packets just used that heart symbol in the title.) This is not your average existential angst and reality perception comedy. No, it's a spiritual petit four for the mind and heart. A beautiful little idiosyncratic gem of a movie that will have you laughing out loud and scratching your head, often simultaneously. Not only is the film a challenge, but the film comes in two flavors at your local DVD outlet. There is a special two disc edition and a single disc edition to pick from. I received the single disc package, but my secret spies have let me in on exactly what is on that elusive second disc…so while I can't review the content, I can at least tell you what's there. Just don't ask me why we're here or what purpose your life has. I'm still dismantling all of that.
Facts of the Case
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore) is an activist poet who runs an Open Spaces coalition and has experienced a coincidental encounter with a tall African man three times. The meaning of this bugs him so much that he seeks out the help of Vivian (Lily Tomlin, The Search for Intelligent Signs of Life in the Universe) and Bernard (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate) Jaffe, "existential investigators" who work on a sliding scale. He is warned by Vivian this will be an extensive investigation, where they will spy on his every move until they discover the key to these occurrences. What the detectives find is that Albert is locked in a vicious struggle with an overly ambitious corporate sales executive from the megastore company Huckabees, Brad Stand (Jude Law, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, basically every movie in 2004). Brad is trying to co-opt the Open Spaces coalition for his own personal gain. He also seems interested in employing the Jaffes to investigate his own life, which leads them to his spokesmodel girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts, The Ring). Finally, add to all of this a quest for meaning from a disheartened fire fighter named Tom Corn (Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights), and the existential investigators' dark French rival in philosophy Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert, 8 Women).
Director David O. Russell, who was behind both Three Kings and Flirting With Disaster, directed this movie. I remember a huge scuttlebutt erupted when I Heart Huckabees was released, concerning whether a movie with a star-studded cast like this could truly be called "independent." Well—it played in art houses, it didn't have a huge ad campaign, and nothing gets blown up. That feels pretty independent to me. It's a movie that feels akin to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because it's a mind-bending comedy with some serious overtones and a stellar cast. The subject matter is less daunting, though, because everyone here is just wondering the basic question of "What does my life mean?" Don't let all the existential mumbo-jumbo fool you; it's a lot of fun even if you can't define "nihilism."
The movie concerns the struggle between two prevailing thoughts about the universe and reality. Bernard and Vivian Jaffe believe everything is positively interconnected, and the universe is planned out with an infinite connection to every atom in your body. They believe positive thoughts can steer someone's life back on course, and connect them to their greater purpose. Their rival, Caterine Vauban, professes that everything in the universe is just a random and cruel accident. She believes that it doesn't matter what you do while you are here on Earth, because we are ultimately all alone and nothing is connected. David Russell is making his own statement about what it's like in the world after September 11th, and he's using a light farce to debate all of this in a very palatable and entertaining manner. I Heart Huckabees addresses environmentalism, conflicting ideologies, right and left political slants, corporate greed, what it means to be attractive, and what reality really is. It's some pretty heavy stuff wrapped into a puff pastry…No, that's not it. To me the one metaphor that works is a more sophisticated but still light and airy dessert—I Heart Huckabees would be a crème brulée of comedy.
Everything is interconnected in this movie, and you can look at some spooky associations and pairings in it. The Jaffes have the nostalgic feel of classic gumshoes, and remind you of The Thin Man series. (Wouldn't that rock with Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman?) Lily and Dustin have wanted to work together for a long time, so they jumped at the chance to do this movie. Thank God they did! Both of them are hilarious. Lily is a physical and mental comedienne of the highest caliber, and Dustin does a spot-on impression of Robert Thurman (professor of philosophy at a huge New York university and the father of Uma Thurman). Jason Schwartzman is brilliant with his "early 20s I hate the world" angst bit. He even gets to do some great work with his real-life mother, Talia Shire (The Godfather), who appears as…his mother. Did I mention that Tippi Hedren (The Birds) shows up talking about saving birds, Jean Smart (Designing Women) gets to do dowdy as a right-wing Christian, and Shania Twain (country/pop diva) appears as a country/pop diva?
Check out the eerie coincidences, too: like how Jessica Lange's picture splits in two at one moment in the film, and then standing there is Naomi Watts—both women destined to be loved by giant gorillas. Watts is hilarious, and gets to spoof both her intensity in 21 Grams and display her sexy, fun side as well. Ironically, at one time Nicole Kidman was attached to the film, but Watts is perfection. Jude Law turns in a particularly nasty performance, and seems to be more than happy to slam his "golden boy" image. Mark Wahlberg gleefully rips through the movie as a physical philosopher destined to give everyone insight with his fists, and even cries out the real name of the priest who saved him from the streets when he was a teenager. He's rarely seemed so real, and he's a standout here. Isabelle Huppert turns in one of her sexiest performances ever, and her scene in the mud is breathtaking. It's all too freaky to even begin to comprehend the reality and interconnections that are playing out in front of you. Bottom line—it's also just a whole lot of fun.
The transfer is great. No artifacts here, no edge enhancements, and the only pixelation is intentional (when Dustin Hoffman contemplates the infinity of his nose compared to Wahlberg's). Colors pop, flesh tones are true, and there's nary a hint of grain. The soundtrack is well represented with a 5.1 surround mix that lets the dialogue crackle over Jon Brion's (Punch Drunk Love) melodic score. There are two commentaries on both editions of the disc which include David O. Russell solo for one track, and joined by stars Mark Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzman on the other. Naomi Watts is reached by cell phone at one point, but only for one scene. There is some repetition to the two tracks, but one is the interconnected party session and the other is the lonely technical analysis of the film. They both are pretty solid, and explain a lot about the film and how they approached it. No other extras exist on the single disc edition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only bad part about the whole package is the decision of which edition to get. There are two versions, a single disc and a deluxe package with two. The commentaries are on both editions, but the special edition features the following extras not found on this single disc version: deleted/extended scenes that run for 51 minutes; a documentary of the shoot with many directors, including Spike Jonze, which runs 35 minutes; Russell's appearance on The Charlie Rose Show; four minutes of outtakes; a gag reel; an infomercial for the agency (with deleted scenes from the infomercial); Open Spaces PSAs; featurettes on costume design and the score; acoustic performances of some songs in the score; trailers; and music videos for the songs. So there you are. You can get I Heart Huckabees fully loaded, or almost bare bones. The difference? One will cost you about ten dollars more on average. My suggestion is to rent the single disc to see if this is for you, or go ahead and take the plunge if you are already a fan.
It's definitely not going to be a film for everyone. It's a disorienting farce that offers a lot of insight into philosophy. It's funny as hell, but I suspect some people will be frustrated with the seemingly random elaborate theories thrown at them. There's hardly any violence in the film, and the sex is rather clinical and hardly revealing. I suspect the only reason the film was rated R was for the strings of expletives that seem to come out of everyone's mouth at one point or another. But other than that, the only thing offensive about the movie is the idea that philosophy seeks to answer questions that maybe religion deals with more easily (or at least more succinctly). So I wouldn't rent this with your grandmother over, or as a nice diversion for the kids in between Spongebob and Dora. But if you're of legal age, think a lot about the meaning of life, and have half a brain, this is at least a "must rent" movie if not "must own." In the span of two days I have watched the damn thing three times, and it stays fresh and funny every time. But I suspect it will be labeled under the "love it or hate it" category relegated to any great piece of work in art.
I found this movie totally engaging, funny as hell, and something nice to mull over and discuss over coffee later. It's not going to change anyone's world, but it sure will expand it. The cast is phenomenal, the direction is tight, and the DVD is nicely done whether or not it comes with the extra disc. It's the kind of comedy you wish Hollywood would make more of. Beats the crap out of Taxi or Are We There Yet with one hand tied behind its back. You wonder how these kind of films get made…It's amazing to me when a group of people get together and agree to take pay cuts just to produce something they truly believe in. I Heart Huckabees is the kind of reality I wish I lived in.
Free to go on dismantling for as long as it wants. I Heart Huckabees is that rare find where you will be begging your friends to watch it if they haven't seen it. And if they have, you'll probably engage in a quoting war that could last for days. It's an awesome comedy, and easily one of the best of 2004 or any year. It's whip-smart, peppy, and completely lovable.
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• Commentary by Director David O. Russell
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