Saturday, November 06, 2004

I ♥ Huckabees Directed by David O. Russell

Twenty minutes into I ♥ Huckabees, Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin) tosses aside Sep. 11, 2001 as “that big September thing.” It’s an offhand comment, easily missed, but it says so much about the métier of the film. The person affected by “that big September thing” is Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter by trade, a philosophical dilettante by necessity. It took me a bit to get it too – two separate viewings actually – but once gotten, the getting is good. Here goes: buried within the slapstick surrealism of I ♥ Huckabees is a meditation on the very modern need to interpret and make sense of yourself, and the world around yourself, in a world that is becoming increasingly senseless. Each character has a catalyst that propels them into their searching. For Tommy, it’s 9/11, for Albert (Jason Schwartzman) it’s familial and societal neglect, and for Brad (Jude Law), aware or not, it’s the overwhelming and increasing falsity of his external life.

Tackling the cliché of “what does it all mean?” without waxing cliché is one thing; doing it amidst some of the best humor of the last five years is another game entirely. Russell pulls it off, though. The movie has fantastic unilateral appeal because of this. You can watch it with your brain off - absorbing nil, laughing non-stop. Or you can turn your brain on and learn a little bit about the pathetic state of modern man (while laughing your existential ass off.)

It’s perfect. Almost. And that’s the reason I saw it twice before writing this review: I knew on first viewing that I ♥ Huckabees was very good, if for no other reason than the impeccable timing and originality of the humor. The day after seeing it, an idea occurred to me. That idea can be found in the first paragraph up yonder – no need to rehash. I had visions of grandeur: I ♥ Huckabees, in my mind, became a Top 3 of the year kind of film. But something was rotten in Denmark. Combining brilliant humor and brilliant insight seamlessly is a nigh impossible task – for this reason I withheld on a review until I could see Huckabees again. I wanted to give Russell (and co-writer Jeff Baena) complete benefit of the doubt, but after seeing their film twice, I cannot do that. Not entirely at least. The difficulty regarding seamless splicing of humor and insight is in the chemistry of the two. Humor is, generally speaking, the non-violent ‘drunk guy’ at the party: loud and obnoxious yes, but also harmless, humorous, and completely devoid of inhibition. Insight is the ‘designated driver’: bland to observation, always sober, but extremely interesting in the right context, i.e. a context w/o the ‘drunk guy’. Russell and Baena are working, for 1 hour and 46 minutes, in a small room containing themselves, the ‘drunk guy’, and the ‘designated driver’. The key to keeping both humor and insight relevant lies in dialing back the humor just enough - but not too much – in order to let the insight peek through. The missteps lie in how hard the dial is tweaked.

About halfway into the film, Albert and Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) disappear into the woods, leaving Tommy behind, in order to do the nasty. And they get nasty indeed - rubbing dirt on each other, dipping each other’s head in mud – just being that metaphorical ‘drunk guy.’ (This is to say nothing of Russell’s heavy-handed comparison of Vauban’s nihilism and rolling around in muck.) The whole scene does well to muddle the (really fantastic) theme of the film, while simultaneously offering up a joke that is neither clever nor terribly funny. If Russell had figured his two sides straight, he would’ve made one of the best films of the decade thus far, and possibly the best film of the year. As it stands, I ♥ Huckabees is a very good film with some minor (but integral) flaws; it should easily make this year’s top ten.

Also: check out two fantastic reviews of I ♥ Huckabees. One by Manohla Dargis, which goes into further detail about the whole personal trauma thing I touched on, and the other by Dan Meyer, which discusses in greater detail the shortcomings of the film. (Although he's wildly off-base in talking about the over-explanation bit. That's so essential to the relationship between Albert and Tommy.)


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