Tuesday, October 12, 2004

I ♥ Huckabees

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2004 at Loews Boston Common #1 (first-run)

You won't find Douglas Adams's name anywhere in the credits for I ♥ Huckabees, and I can't even make a convincing argument that Adams was any sort of influence on writer/director David O. Russell. Still, it doesn't seem to be a particularly difficult jump to get from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency to the Existential Detectives played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman.

It's more than just one turn of phrase, though - indeed, where Dirk Gently is basically a private detective who takes an eliptical route in his investigations, Vivian and Bernard Jaffe are more like extraordinarily proactive psychiatrists. What strikes me as similar is how both I ♥ Huckabees and Adams's works encourage the audience to think about the metaphysics of Life, the Universe, and Everything by presenting those ideas under a layer of absurd whimsey. Of course, where Adams tended to bury his profundity like raisins inside a big pudding of silliness, Russell's comedy is like a bright, but thin, layer of paint over a philosophical core.

This, of course, makes Jason Schwartzman the perfect lead for this movie. Since Rushmore, he has made a career out of playing young intellectuals without the life experience to make any real use of the theory that they have internalized and passionately believe in. For Schwartzman's Albert Markovski, that would be environmentalism, poetry, and a belief that there are no coincidences. When he encounters the same African boy three times in rapid succession, and then finds the Jaffes' business card in the pocket of a borrowed jacket, he's sure that there's some sort of meaning.

The quest for that meaning will bring him into contact with some strange characters. He already knows Brad (Jude Law), a slick executive at the Huckabees corporation who is usurping Albert's environemtnal coalition, and Dawn (Naomi Watts), Brad's beautiful model girlfriend. The Jaffes themselves are rather odd, and they introduce him to his "other", petroleum-obsessed fireman Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg). Meanwhile, a former student of the Jaffes who rejected their belief in the interconnectedness of all things in favor of a belief in a meaningless, cruel universe (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to seduce Albert and Tommy to her way of thinking.

If the very idea of two groups of philosophers trying to prove the veracity of their theories by applying them to speciic individuals - or just philosophers "in the field" - doesn't strike you as humorously absurd, this movie probably isn't for you. I ♥ Huckabees makes great sport of being too extreme or literal as regards one's intellectual beliefs, but it never crosses the line to being anti-intellectual, or flatly saying that these people just need to use some common sense. Of course, that may be implied when Tommy chooses to go to a fire on his bicycle instead of the truck because the fire truck runs on gasoline and his anti-petroleum stance means riding it would be hypocrisy.

It's not afraid to be smart and throw its intellectual weight around, and I don't know how off-putting that may be to the audience. There's a scene where Hoffman is arguing that the Universe is half full rather than half empty because even though aotms and subatomic particles have cracks between them, there are smaller particles transmitting force and information across those gaps, and I found it clever. Some around me seemed to find it pretentious. There's a fine line between the two and everyone sees that line in a different place.

And if you find the movie's almost-lecturing pretentious, the multitude of funny jokes probably won't make up for it, nor will the semi-buried treasures of Naomi Watts's and Mark Wahlberg's performances (soon, I'm going to have to stop being surprised when Wahlberg is good in a movie). If you don't, though, you'll probably enjoy a movie that is frequently silly but almost never stupid.

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