Movie review by Greg Carlson
David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees” flirts equally with disaster and genius. A loquacious, irreverent romp, the movie juggles an all-star ensemble with deftness and economy, calling to mind a sort of Preston Sturges-meets-Charlie Kaufman genre implosion: anything can happen, and it often does. At the center of the chaos is Jason Schwartzman, (looking very Tom Cruise circa “Magnolia”) sinking his teeth into his best role since “Rushmore.” Schwartzman is Albert Markovski, an environmental activist so at odds with his frustrating existence and its inexplicable coincidences that he hires husband and wife existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to sort out the mess in his head.
While it does not quite do justice to Russell’s imagination to describe exactly how existential detectives earn their living, suffice it to say that Vivian and Bernard are experts in their unusual field, and have been in the business for a long, long time. Existential detective work resembles good old-fashioned gumshoe investigating in several ways (digging through trash, surveillance, interviews with friends and associates of the client, etc.), but a number of the unorthodox methods employed at the agency – including a sensory deprivation technique that allows Russell to have a blast with some truly inventive CGI – are as hysterical as they are far out.
Russell’s neatest trick is cramming in enough character to be shared among all the cast members, without sacrificing nuance, pacing or the breakneck structure of his cinematic house of cards. Schwartzman’s Markovski may be the movie’s center of gravity, but several other actors, including Jude Law as an officious executive, Naomi Watts as a conflicted spokesmodel, Isabelle Huppert as a nihilistic philosopher, and Mark Wahlberg – brilliantly deadpan – as a depressed firefighter, all get their very own moments to shine. “Huckabees” sometimes neglects Hoffman and Tomlin – especially in the second half, when they are desperately needed – in favor of spending time with the couple’s clients, but more often than not, the trade-off is worth it. When Hoffman and Tomlin are allowed center stage, however, their timing is magnificent.
Russell, who wrote “Huckabees” with Jeff Baena, is not afraid to swing for the fences, so audience members skittish about listening to convoluted laments about the meaninglessness of life might not get on board. Viewers have to demonstrate a certain amount of patience with the eccentric activities that unfold on the way to Russell’s point, but by the third act, the filmmaker has brilliantly brought his story full circle, exchanging the fates of two of its central characters in a breathless turn of events. Russell’s splendid juxtaposition of corporate voracity (Huckabees is a juggernaut chain store similar to Target or Wal-Mart) and feel-good eco-friendly advocacy is but one of the director’s spirited commentaries on the schizo hypocrisy of contemporary American society. No solution is offered because no solution exists.
Fans of Russell’s earlier work will take much delight in a dinner table scene with uncredited secret weapon Richard Jenkins. As irascible patriarch Mr. Hooten, Jenkins engages in a side-splitting quarrel with Wahlberg and Schwartzman regarding the pros and cons of suburban sprawl. Russell also gets plenty of mileage out of Bob Gunton and Talia Shire (Schwartzman’s real life mom) as Markovski’s parents in another one-off scene. “I Heart Huckabees” might not hold up as well as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but the two films certainly deserve to share company as the year’s most inspired and creative cinematic treats.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/25/04.