Published Oct 01, 2004Existentialists are not, for the most part, known for their sense of humour. There are no dinner party tales of that wacky Jean Paul Sartre; for the most part, those inclined to ponder the meaninglessness of it all are more inclined toward ennui than tee-hee. But director David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings) has taken the search for signs of intelligent life amongst humanity and turned it into, at different points, a slapstick adventure, a biting satire of corporate culture, a heart-warming comedy and a cultural critique of superficiality, all achieved by one of the year's most remarkable ensemble casts.
I Heart Huckabees opens with the minor crisis of Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a dejected environmental activist seeking to change the world through poetry readings; he's troubled by a strange co-incidence and hires two "existential detectives," Bernard and Vivian, to unravel it for him. The husband-and-wife team of investigators (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) go well beyond Albert's little coincidence and start to unravel his entire life. Following the loose threads leads them to Brad Stand (Jude Law), a rising marketing executive at the Huckabees department store he's trying to co-opt Albert's Open Spaces campaign for his own gain within Huckabees, but when the existential detectives start mucking about, Brad starts questioning his own choices, as does his girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), the "face" of Huckabees.
I Heart Huckabees works because of a series of contrasts that get more and more ridiculous as the film goes on. Much hilarity is drawn from the fact that bimbo-ish Brad and Dawn would allow their lives to collapse in the face of some minor philosophical musings; it's as if their privilege as beautiful people had never occurred to them, and the revelation leaves Dawn a mess in frumpy coveralls. Albert hooks up with a dissatisfied client, a fire-fighter named Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) and together they discover a rival existential investigator (Isabelle Huppert) whose nihilistic conclusions are the opposite of Bernard and Vivian's positive thinking approach.
That so much comedy could be mined from such esoteric sources is a testament to the vision of Russell, who co-wrote with Jeff Baena. Russell has a knack for taking unusual subjects and digging unexpected results from them. Three Kings made an anti-war comedy out of a desert adventure; Flirting With Disaster took family matters on a road trip; and his first feature, Spanking the Monkey, was a comedy about incest. Come to think of it, this existential thing is probably a breeze. (Fox Searchlight)