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(Not So) Random Hearts

 

I Heart Huckabees

David O. Russell, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: October 26, 2004

By Laurence Station

In movieland, everything's connected. Contrivance ties the whole ball of wax together, from studio to director to actors to grips. Very rarely do things happen by chance (and those that do usually get cleaned up in post-production). In the real world, things aren't so cut-and-dried. Certainly there's an interconnectedness to things (that accident on the Interstate you take to work in the morning will affect you). But although the flapping of butterfly wings on one side of the globe can generate tsunamis half a world away, direct exposure to such connectedness, or coincidences, is extremely difficult to pick out and label. Besides, where's the spontaneity (and, by extension, thrill) of life if we could see behind the curtain at the Oz-like machinations cranking the universal gears?

David O. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey) asks all sorts of coincidental, random-chance, being-and-nothingness type questions in I Heart Huckabees. Luckily, Russell is smart enough to make the film a comedy. No one goes to the movies seeking the meaning of life, and Russell wisely concedes this point, even if he has larger pretensions than, say, Weekend at Bernie's did regarding one's higher purpose. But Russell stays fairly conventional with Huckabees, reigning things in when he could veer off into wonderfully absurdist territory. And this is unfortunate, because his setup lends itself to some cosmos-altering payoff that never materializes.

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is a poet and environmentalist fighting for greenspace against encroaching suburban sprawl. In his crosshairs is gigantic retailer Huckabees, which has its sights set on a marshy area of land for its next superstore. The face of Huckabees, as far as Albert is concerned, is generically named golden boy Brad Stand (Jude Law), an up and coming executive who co-opts Albert's plan to save the marsh and turns it into a PR bonanza for the retail giant. Albert's envy of and disgust with Brad leads him to a pair of "existential detectives," Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin). Albert's pretense for hiring the pair is to determine what a string of coincidences involving the repeated sighting of a tall African immigrant has anything to do with his day-to-day existence.

The issue at the heart of Huckabees is Albert's disdain for Brad for being everything he's not, only to learn that they're not all that different. In the interim we're introduced to a host of others connected to Albert and the existential detectives: a militantly anti-petrol fireman, Tommy (Mark Wahlberg, doing good work); Brad's vapid, confused girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts); and Caterine Vauban (Isaelle Huppert), the very French, nihilistic antithesis to Bernard and Vivian's hopeful, "everything's connected" optimists. Hoffman, Tomlin and Huppert essentially serve as helpful intermediaries (with the randy Huppert character getting very hands-on with young Albert), assisting the stray lambs in finding their way back to the fold and helping them to learn a little something about themselves along the way.

Rather than take a stab at explaining the meaning of life, Russell does what all God-like filmmakers typically do: he simply ties up loose ends and rolls the credits. Huckabees is entertaining (though Schwartzman's Albert, a conflicted self-loathing narcissist desperate to be Brad, minus the glib shallowness, isn't exactly a character worth liking or rooting for), and the cast is strong. But it would have been refreshing to see Russell run off the edge of the cliff and really throw the audience for a loop. As the film ends, the Huckabees universe isn't much different from the way we're introduced to it nearly two hours earlier. Circular logic? Nah. It's just another pleasant, ultimately disposable detour to movieland.

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