Philosophers, urban planners, political scientists, environmentalists and Shania Twain fanatics have little pieces of screwball comedy to call their own in I Heart Huckabees.
But if a grab-bag commentary on nihilism, interconnectedness, suburban sprawl, corporate invasion, greed and post-9/11 grief in less than two hours sounds a little too scattered, it is.
Co-writer/director David O. Russell knows comedy, from the farcical Flirting with Disaster to the satirically furious fireball of Three Kings. And it’s impossible to slam him for diversifying, bringing unique subject matter to each project.
Huckabees is never boring, has several huge laughs, and contains a handful of memorable zingers whipped and snapped with precise timing at people such as Twain, Garth Brooks and Phil Jackson.
The problem here is the annoyingly playful pretentiousness at work, and it’s not just the substitution of symbols for words in the title. Here, Russell cares more about ideas than characters.
Too often, its philosophical discourse shows nothing other than that Russell paid attention in collegiate courses, fashioned the notebook he has to prove it into an oddball comic fantasy, persuaded big-name actors to read it and punched it up with some special effects.
For all its what-are-we-all-here-for frenzy, the forced and gimmicky Big Spiritual Revelation boils down to taking the good with the bad. As the movie puts it, “mixing your thing with their thing.” Just hazarding a guess, but that doesn’t seem like a conclusion worth paying $8 for.
Perhaps fitting for a movie concerned with sprawl, Huckabees plops down the fat haunches of its plot like a Super Wal-Mart does on huge tracts of land. Imagine the merchandise variety of Wally World advertised with the sunshine-and-pastel inanity of Old Navy, and you have Huckabees, a super-store central to the plot.
Renegade environmentalist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is hoping to align his Open Spaces Commission with Huckabees in a bid to save marshland. But he’s run into trouble with Huckabees’ corporate lackey Brad Stand, perfectly played by Jude Law with Ken-doll fervor and flattened American accent.
Brad’s trying to hijack Albert’s cohorts, swaying them with celebrity appearances and free Huckabees booty. Seeking spiritual peace, Albert enlists a pair of metaphysical detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, funny together, but with little to do) to investigate a coincidence in his life. Instead, they delve into his confrontation with Brad, eventually take him on as a client, too, and set in motion a conflicting chain of nihilism and interconnectedness.
See? Too scattered.
And that’s without even mentioning Naomi Watts, largely reduced to window dressing as the face and voice of Huckabees who gets replaced when she questions her role. Or Isabelle Huppert as a sexual, nihilistic Darth Vader seducing Albert to the philosophical dark side.
Or Mark Wahlberg, challenging Law for the film’s best performance, as Albert’s metaphysical sponsor, a bicycle-riding firefighter with nutty hair and equally nutty obsessions about petroleum’s place in the world.
For those two performances alone, Huckabees will make a so-so rental diversion some night. But it’s far from the meta-comedy brilliance that Charlie Kaufman brings to his mind-twisting work through identifiable emotion, people and experience. Russell might have funny notions about Shania Twain, but that don’t impress me much.