Saturday 5 February 2011

Obscurity Files #39 - I ♥ Huckabees

With David O. Russell's The Fighter now in cinemas, let's take a gander at his comedy about a young man going through an existential crisis.
Today it's I ♥ Huckabees...

Wanting to discover what a random coincidence in his life means, environmental campaigner Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) employs a pair of "Existential Detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to dig into his life and hopefully uncover what it all means. Albert also has to deal with the seemingly happy but secretly repressed employees of the local department store Huckabees, and a drop-out fireman worried about the USA's dependency on oil.

After my first viewing of this film back in the cinema in 2004, I'll be honest; I didn't really get it. I'm willing to put that down to a youthful optimism about life, because a couple of years down the line and watching it again on DVD, this existential drama rang a lot truer. I'm not one for transcendental deconstructing, but I'm more willing to appreciate a general apathy towards work and life in general.

It's still a strange little film with a sub-Charlie Kaufman story, but there's still a lot to enjoy. Schwartzman's Albert is an appealing central character, even when he's placed in some rather bizarre and trippy sequences. The sight of Jude Law in a ladies wig was odd enough, but to show Schwartzman literally drinking milk from his breast was an experience I wouldn't care to share. There's also the constant threat of Shania Twain showing up, which frankly, is chilling.

As the married detectives, Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman make for a fun double act, although it's occasionally hard to take what Hoffman's saying seriously with such a wacky haircut. It jars with the film's attempt to offer some sort of psychological self assessment for the viewer, and reduces the film down to the 'Spiritual Awareness for Dummies' it may well be.

Russell's Three Kings and The Fighter star Mark Wahlberg turns up as Tommy, an on leave firefighter struggling to deal with the aftermath of 9/11. Referred to in the film as "the big September thing", one wonders if this entire film is David O. Russell's reaction and way of dealing with his own existential crisis, post 9/11. Wahlberg's character continually harps on about the evils of oil dependency and the lengths the American Government will go to ensure its future stability; the subtext is pretty clear, and the director and writers' personal opinion on the matter is obvious. Not that this isn't an important topic, but Russell might as well have placed Wahlberg on a soapbox whilst he delivered his lines.

Overall it's a strong cast that are clearly having fun with the material, even if they probably really think they're spouting a load of bogus science. Rejected hippie wisdom or not, there's some good comedic performances from Schwartzman and Wahlberg, dealing with their repressed rage that's slowly boiling over into violent outbursts against each other. It's a somewhat ironic storyline given what the film is probably best known for now.

I Heart Huckabees has gained a degree of infamy in the last couple of years, thanks to a couple of widely distributed video clips of director David O. Russell and actor Lily Tomlin engaging in a rather impolite exchange of words during filming. There's some dispute as to whether it's real or not (it looks pretty real to me, and if not it's a terrible way to publicise a film), but either way it puts the film's hippie love-in optimism into a whole new light.

I ♥ Huckabees is far from a complete success, and there's plenty of parts to the film that just make no sense at all. The pop psychology is largely incoherent, and I can't say I was too bothered by Jude Law and Naomi Watts' strand of the film. However, they are needed to complete all the pieces in the puzzle, even when the conclusion probably leaves you with more questions than you started with. In a similar fashion to some of the character's methods of enlightenment, Huckabees often hammers you over the head with its message, but it's an admirable reaction to the traditional American way of life and the need to change their approach in a 21st Century world.

So what's it all about? Honestly, I'm not particularly any closer to an answer, but at least it was fun along the way.

Save from obscurity? YES.

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