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Analyse this!
A region 2 DVD review of I ❤ HUCKABEES by Lord Summerisle
 
Existentialism
A (mostly) twentieth-century approach that emphasizes the primacy of individual existence over any presumed natural essence for human beings. Although they differ on many details, existentialists generally suppose that the fact of my existence as a human being entails both my unqualified freedom to make of myself whatever I will and the awesome responsibility of employing that freedom appropriately, without being driven by anxiety toward escaping into the inauthenticity or self-deception of any conventional set of rules for behaviour, even though the entire project may turn out to be absurd.
www.philosophypages.com

 

Above is the primary philosophy that I ❤ Huckabees hinges upon, as it is the journey of a handful of people searching for a sense of self via an existential detective service, and I find this definition most appropriate in describing what much of the film is about.

This film does not lend itself well to a simple synopsis, but the general outline is as follows; Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is an environmentalist who enlists the help of Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin), existentialist detectives, after a series of co-incidences involving a tall "African guy." Their examination leads them to Albert's work, where his charter to help save "the open spaces" is set be taken over by a member of the Huckabees corporation, Brad, played by Jude Law. As the investigation continues Albert is teamed up with a fire fighter called Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) who is also striving to find meaning in his life, post 9/11. He has found an alternative philosophical approach in a book by French nihilist, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who is tracking the whole group's movements without any of their knowledge. Still following?! Dawn (Naomi Watts), Brad's girlfriend, is the last to enlist the help of the detectives, by which point everyone else's quest to find themselves has somewhat put them at odds with each other and themselves. Eventually the two camps of contrasting extremes of philosophy reconcile, helped by the journeys of their clients.

Okay, so that may sound somewhat convoluted, but one would be surprised how well it works in practice. David O. Russell uses many devices to create a film with very deep base meanings without getting boring for a moment. The pacing is for the most part at breakneck speed, the initial bombardment of information ensuring the audience is always on its toes, in true detective movie style constantly keeping you one step behind exactly what is going on. This is a great narrative device, generating an element of chaos to add to the chaos of the editing pace. To balance this out, the mise en scene is pristinely ordered. The angular and minimalist sets have been designed meticulously in manner of tone and colour, to create the exact right environment for the characters to move in. From the surrealist paintings, ornamental melons and existentialist blackboard equations of the detectives' offices to the high commercial icons (Shania and Pete Sampras cut-outs etc) and notices of the Huckabee building, attention to detail is as important on screen as it is in the highly intricate script. There are also forays into Magritte style surrealism in the form of Albert's abstract psyche, realised through the use of digital technology. I have misgivings about CGI, although here it is a help rather than a hindrance, an intensification of the film's themes rather than an excuse to curb creativity in favour of stylistics, as is the case with much modern cinema. It is also used as the flip side to Albert's chaotic mind as Huckabees' ordered poster designs, rendered in mock 3D; a connotation of corporation sensibilities and their attempt to appear sincere in helping the public, when in fact they have more capitalist motives.

It is useful to note at this point that Russell himself was an activist before he became a filmmaker, and this a very personal work for him. The digs at capitalist society range from the subtle to the down right explicit, as do all of the messages in this film, (an especially interesting theme is that of the corporation as religion – when Watts' character refers to Huckabees as "fuckabees," it is registered as practically blasphemous). Every one of these barbs are delivered with a venomously personal touch rare in the writing of modern mainstream American film, although, it is contentious to even suggest this to be a commercial movie. Just because of the widespread popularity and high profile of Russell's previous film, Three Kings, does not mean one can assume his next offering would be targeted at the same audience. Huckabees is a much too diverse picture to enjoy the success of its predecessor, sadly.

The effectiveness of the piece is helped by the inspired casting and performances from the ensemble cast. Schwartzman is superb as Albert, and Russell did well to pick him for a lead role following his turn alongside Bill Murray in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998). His performance here put me in mind of the young Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), which Schwartzman himself sites as an inspiration for the role. He is complimented beautifully by the impeccably unusual assortment of supporting roles. Dustin Hoffman is highly charged and quirky, a real return to form from a great actor who for a while seemed to have lost his way. This is a perfect antidote for him playing a comedy role to that of the same year's Meet The Fockers, which is much less of a movie. Lily Tomlin works perfectly next to Hoffman, and a real screen chemistry between them is clear. Then we have Law's great, just subtle enough, caricature of a businessman eager to climb the corporate ladder, and Watts, hot out off the shoot of 21 Grams, convinces in her first comedy role, and Isabelle Huppert does a fine job of exuding an aura of deadpan calm. Although all of these parts are played pitch-perfect, it is Wahlberg who steals the show for me. From the first scene he appears in, he rips through the movie like a man possessed, and accomplished changing my view of him as a somewhat run of the mill poster boy, to an actor with great comic awareness and ability. What all of these great characters/actors do is create situations onscreen where all concerned are figuratively chewing up the set with their performances and it's a well played juggling act on the part of Russell to control these scenes, no doubt down his unique way of directing, the hard work put in at pre-production and the intimate working atmosphere he takes care to cultivate on set.

These characters are confused and disorientated, as is the audience, by this barrage of theory and questioning of the self, so identification with the protagonists is not difficult to establish. The tremendous energy thrown into each part significantly adds to the intensity of what Russell wants to bring across, although philosophical tirades by Hoffman and moral outbursts (mostly about "the petroleum situation") by Wahlberg, can sometimes be a little difficult to assimilate before the next narrative curveball is thrown, adding to the relentless feeling of running to keep one sep behind the aggressive pace. This is denoted explicitly with the physical movement of the characters. Albert's journey in his mind is reflected by his constant physical movement. Walking, running, cycling etc, even when he is standing still there are gestures or nervous ticks. He has very few still moments, as does the whole movie. Actually, all characters conform to this. They are all moving, searching, following, going from A to B, the characters' transitions are constant. Even Huppert's composed character still is still moving, tracing the movements of all the others. The only true period of stillness is at the end where a resolution has been reached, and the case is closed.

There are some wonderfully quirky moments, born out of improvisation by the likes of Schwartzman, Wahlberg and the Tomlin/Hoffman team, all at such ease with their roles they inhabit them so fully their personalities spill beyond the script. When Albert is asked by Vivian if he has ever "transcended time and space", he answers: "Yes..no…time not space. No I don't know what you're talking about." Words on a page cannot describe the hilarity of Schwartzman's delivery of that line, and it has become one of my favourite film quotes.

The music accompanying this is by Jon Brion, a Paul Thomas Anderson regular poached by Russell (he also composed the score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the same year). Brion's experience with off-the wall-directors is a clear benefit here as his style is perfectly in keeping with the playfulness of the movie, and it is clear Russell worked closely with him to get exactly the right tone for every scene (which is detailed in one of the DVD extras, see below). It is one such score that is so seamless that on first watch/listen one can easily miss it if not keeping a trained ear out. With all the rest going on, it is just another string to the Huckabees bow that gets assimilated favourably within the form, as all good scores should.

With regards to the main narrative thrust, it is impossible in a humble review to cover in any detail all of the elements of this film when it comes to philosophy. As Russell has drawn from so many different influences and theories it would become somewhat complex to delve into the finer points of, say, quantum mechanics or Satre's take on existentialism. There are hints of all of this in what is thrown at you during the film. Russell's "cubes and cracks" debate, backed up by another unusual and innovative use of CGI, is a broad simplification a particular theory, made easy for the average viewer. Although, for those who are not philosophically minded it is still difficult at times to keep up with the theories banded about in the course of the picture. There is nihilism from Caterine, Zen, Freud and Satre from Bernard (not to mention Magritte), mixed up with moral and political theorising and indignation from Tommy and Albert. These are to name but a few influences drawn upon for Russell's movie, and are all clearly interests of his personally. Here it would be nice to offer up the possibility of an auteur tag, as Russell's personal stamp is crawling all over this film (if stamps can crawl!). This is of course problematic, as he does not have a sufficient body of work to have earned that troublesome, though sought after, label. Although, this is a good indication of things to come, and one is caused to wonder if we have a Scorsese-style relationship with the industry in the making (i.e. a one movie for a big studio to fund the making of a more personal feature, type plan; as in, one for you – the industry – and one for me – independent), or maybe a Spike Jonze-like indie-wood position. One can only wait and see. But I think one thing is certain, keeping an eye on David O' Russell will be beneficial.

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphic, this is a film that offers some challenges for DVD transfer in its very deliberate use of blank, undecorated walls, many of which are the very shade of grey that often seems to present a breeding ground for compression artefacts. On the whole the transfer copes well here (though some are still occasionally visible), and the sharpness, contrast and colour reproduction are bang on, as you'd expect from a big studio release of a modern American film of even moderate budget.

The 5.1 soundtrack is a resolutely unflashy affair, sitting for the large part at the front and having little to wake up the subwoofer, though music is sometimes more inclusively spread. This approach does allow the film a rare surround sound gag, though – when Albert's father insists on showing off his new stereo system that has "speakers everywhere," Shania Twain's Feel like A Woman comes at you from every direction, just as it would on Albert's Dad's stereo system. Full marks for that one.

extra features

There are two commentary tracks on this disc, one with just David O. Russell, the other on which he is sporadically joined by Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts. They are both packed with fascinating information about the film, with the first one obviously having emphasis on the writing and directing, the second exploring similar territory with the actors chipping in on their performances etc. The second is somewhat edited and at times it is a little confusing regarding who is talking, as Wahlberg and Schwartzman flit in and out. Naomi Watts makes a brief appearance by way of a phone connection to discuss the scene in which she and Law talk to the detectives in their kitchen. She adds something to the feature but nothing particularly useful. Schwartzman is the most interesting of the actors talking here, and has a lot to say about how Hoffman guided him through his role and gave him handy tips. Russell is, as always, enthusiastic, and name drops many philosophers who inspired the film as well as doing a little of the old "Oh, he was sooo great," business that I'm not too keen on. There are a few comic exchanges only to be expected with this lot, which is a welcome injection of comedy lacking in many commentary tracks.

The half hour production documentary (34:40) is good for seeing how Russell works on set, and has a few interesting interviews with cast members during production. It does suffer from being a bit cobbled together, although it has a nice immediate feel to it. The worst thing is the irritating off camera geek voice of the interviewer (and maybe director, I don't know), whose nasal "yeah"s of agreement and other pointless expressions began to grate after a while and I was beginning to wish he'd just shut up and let the people speak! Russell is charismatic and Hoffman an unexpected comedian. They all look like they had a great time making the movie, with the highlight possibly being the prosthetic breasts displayed by a few of the male cast!

A standard addition to any good DVD is the extended/deleted scenes (17:54) section, and here we have some of each. Mostly this serves to highlight the space actors are given to move around the script under Russell's command, with extended and alternative takes of some scenes and Albert's fight in the elevator extended to its painful entirety. There is also an outtakes section, registering in a comical fashion how many takes it took to perfect, let's say, the shot in which Brad is pushed to the floor by Tommy. A fun, yet not fundamentally informative addition to the disc.

The same goes for the next feature, entitled Miscellaneous Things People Did (4:31). This piece is yet another elaboration on the "Gee, its great to work with David O. Russell" feeling exuded a little too much by most of these novelties.

Following that there are some fun 'PSAs' and commercials for the open spaces charter, with Albert doing his thing. But it's the half-hour long infomercial that I really enjoyed. It has the Jaffes (Tomlin and Hoffman in character) hosting a programme with two leading doctors of science and philosophy, who they interview at some length about an abstract spectrum of philosophical theory. Quantum mechanics is touched upon with some mention of the tenth dimension, but I found it a little disjointed, although fascinating. The way the thing is put together is the best thing about it, almost as interesting as the film itself, with playful movement in subtleties of the mise en scene and musical interludes by Jon Brion himself, all parodying the kitschness of the infomercial format, as well as bringing in the surreal Huckabees style.

Finally there is Jon Brion's Knock Yourself Out music video (2:04) is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and has the singer strumming his song on a sparse set, supported by some straight-faced tomfoolery from Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg (you heard). I'm taking a guess this was directed by Russell.

summary

Despite some reviews to the contrary, I believe this is a perfectly executed, oddball comedy with an unusual, even original, use of philosophical theory as the driving force at the core of its narrative. Although I understand how a film such as this could prove a little hard to swallow for some, I recommend it to anyone with an intellectually playful nature, or just a lover of independent cinema done with a little more wallet. But those of you who don't like pacy, witty, well made movies with a little more substance than your average Hollywood comedy need not worry themselves about transcending time and space for this experience.

I ❤ Huckabees

USA 2004
102 mins
director
David O. Russell
starring
Jason Schwatzman
Dustin Hoffman
Jude Law
Mark Wahlberg
Lili Tomlin
Isabelle Huppert
Niomi Watts

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles .
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Director's commentary
Director and actor's commentary
Documentary
Delected and extended scenes
Outtakes
Featurette
Infommercials and PSAs
Music video
distributor
20th Century Fox
release date
Out now
review posted
13 October 2005

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews