Let’s say you’re going through life with no sense of purpose, with the feeling that nothing’s making any sense whatsoever. And then along comes coincidences, coincidences so unique and bizarre that they must mean something in the Grand Scheme Of Things. What would you do? Well, if you’re a normal person, you might just brush them off, or maybe see them as mere pecularities that spice up your life for a little while. But if you’re anything like Albert Markovski, you hire a couple of existential detectives to spy on every (and I mean every) aspect of your life until it all fits together.
That’s the premise, or rather just the start of the premise of I Heart Huckabees, the latest from David O. Russell (whose last film was the masterful Gulf War satire/black comedy Three Kings). And like his kindred spirits in Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Charlie Kaufman, Russell’s latest film explores important and very thought-provoking issues — in this case, “big” issues like the meaning of life — in a very quirky (some folks might label it pretentious) and decidedly non-commercial manner. Which makes me like the film all the more.
Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is the idealist leader of an environmental activist group called Open Spaces, and is currently feuding with the rest of the organization over their efforts to save a precious marshland. Getting in his way is Brad Stand (Jude Law), an up-and-coming salesman at Huckabees, a huge chain of “everything” stores (think Wal-Mart), who is trying to get a new mall built on the marshland. His life a mess, Markovski is convinced he’s going down the tubes… until, that is, he runs into a very conspicuous individual on 3 very unsual occasions.
Curious as to what this means, Markovski hires Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), the aforementioned existential detectives. The two of them follow Markovski everywhere, documenting his every move so as to prove to him that everything really does have a point, that all things are connected, and that if you can just realize that, everything will be okay.
Markovski has his doubts, especially when Stand also hires the detectives to help him figure out his life, which doesn’t exactly please his girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), who is also Huckabees spokesmodel (be sure to check out the hilarious Huckabees commercial spots on the movie’s website). As Markovski grows increasingly belligerent, Bernard and Vivian introduce him to Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter who is also struggling with his life’s direction.
Corn has recently been contacted by the detectives’ chief rival, a French woman named Caterine Vauban, who espouses a nihilistic theory that contradicts the detectives’ — there is no meaning, life is pain and suffering, nothing really matters. Corn, bitter and upset of the world’s petroleum issues, increasingly buys into Vauban’s philosophy, taking Markovski with him.
Got all that? Well, that’s just the start.
As Markovski dives into the two philosophies, and deal with his hatred towards Stand (who is in the process of taking over Open Spaces), he’s unable to be entirely sure that he’s making the right choices, especially when he sees how they affect other people. Bernard and Vivian’s philosophy sounds incredibly idyllic but far too optimistic, and while Vauvan’s seems to make more sense given the current state of the world (a point Corn constantly brings up when he goes off on one of his petroleum rants), it leaves very little hope.
Acting-wise, I Heart Huckabees is incredibly strong. Schwartzman gives a solid performance that’s easily on par with his work in Rushmore. Hoffman and Tomlin are solid, with Hoffman giving what’s probably one of the goofiest performances of his career. Law is perfectly smarmy as the slimy, silver-tongued Brad Stand (his Shania Twain story is one of the movie’s highlights).
However, and this was a real shocker to me, it’s Mark Wahlberg who completely steals the show. He has some of the best scenes in the movie, sometimes as a background character supporting Schwartzman, and sometimes on his own. In one of the movie’s funniest (and loudest) parts, he gets into an argument over dinner with a good, Christian family over the meaning of life, and his ever-increasing reactions are priceless.
Although not as bizarre (or affecting) as, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees has plenty of its own strangeness, which should be obvious given the movie’s subject matter. After all, one can’t have a movie starring “existential detectives” and not be a little offbeat, right? Plenty of bizarre little vignettes abound, including one in which Markovski is told to envision Stand as his mother; the camera focuses on the sight of Stand in a blond wig, and then pans down to find Markovski suckling at his/her breast.
Sometimes, the vignettes get a little too bizarre, and Russell seems to get caught up in his own quirkiness. But the smart script and some amazing acting (if there was any justice in this world, the nominations will come rolling in for Wahlberg) really keep this movie running at a good pace, giving the audience one heckuva ride. And it perfectly lampoons our society’s fascination for cheap spirituality, consumer mentality, and off-the-cuff reactionism. As Todd mentioned in his review, there might be no commercial prospects for this movie above its name recognition, but fans of offbeat fare (if you like Charlie Kaufman films, raise your hand!) will definitely find I Heart Huckabees worth the search.