Directed by David O. Russell. USA. 2004.

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David O. Russell's I Love Huckabees is designed to make you laugh and/or think but does neither. It is a strip mall full of over simplified ideas, a cinematic discount store in which everything is for sale: interconnectedness, nihilism, sex, environmentalism, meaninglessness -- you pays your money and you takes your choice. An across-the-board hip satire that spoofs all sides: liberal activists, French intellectuals, self-help groups, Zen Buddhism, right wing Christians, and big business, the film spares nobody but touches nothing, leaving everyone looking slightly ridiculous. In trying to play everything for laughs, Huckabees ends up being bull session fodder, a film that lacks a coherent point of view, has no payoff, and propagates the lie that the world is so complicated that one point of view is as good as another. 

In the film, Jason Schwartzman is Albert Markovski, a nerdy environmental activist who heads a protest group called the Open Spaces Coalition, involved in trying to protect a patch of marshland from being bulldozed by the Huckabees department store chain. When Albert begins to question a series of coincidences in his life involving a tall Sudanese man (Ger Duany), he engages a pair of so-called "existential detectives", Vivian and Bernard to sort out the meaning of the encounters and provide direction in his life. These existential detectives are not the conventional detectives, with a background in criminal justice or an information technology MBA but rather mix philosophy and science to make their case. Played by veteran actors Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, the detectives attempt to "dismantle" Albert's ego, telling him that everything in the universe is interconnected and that we all part of the same blankie, but all Albert can imagine doing is hacking off the limbs of his enemies as he lies in a zipped body bag. 

The investigation of Albert's case turns out to require surveillance of every aspect of his life, including his bathroom activities and his professional relationship with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a corporate honcho for the Huckabees Department Store chain. The soulless corporation is one of Russell's targets and he has crafted its perfect spokespersons in Brad and his girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), the corporate poster girl. Brad has already prevailed in taking over much of the land and now seeks control of the coalition itself, using a public relations smile you can only learn from the pros at strategic public relations and a vague promise of a sponsorship deal that will produce environmentally friendly television spots with singing star Shania Twain.

As part of the training, Albert is introduced to another of the detective's clients, a depressed firefighter Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), whose wife has just left him because of his outspoken antagonism to the petroleum industry. Both try to fit the detective's philosophy into their experience but are so frustrated with the lack of results that they turn to a French intellectual, Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), looking for better answers. What Ms. Vauban has to say, however, in an obvious spoof of the French Existentialists, is that life is full of drama and suffering, a random occurrence of events without structure or coherence, amounting to little more than cruelty, chaos, and meaninglessness. The two conflicting philosophies wage a 
determined battle right to the final frame.

In I Love Huckabees, Russell wants to show Hollywood that important questions can be dealt with in a film that also entertains and he deserves much credit for setting his sights high. Russell throws out a bunch of ideas, however, then rejects them all, setting up a false conflict between advocates of "pure being" and "everything is meaningless" in a flip treatment of subjects that may seem funny and clever to some but which, in this era of Bush II, many people take very seriously. All protagonists try to come to grips with their place in the world, but the characters are so dopey that you wonder if they would be able to figure out how to program a VCR, let alone unlock the secrets of the universe.

While the film raises many important questions, it looks for answers in the wrong places and key questions are not posed. What does it mean to be human? How does one operate in life to produce the maximum satisfaction? Who is responsible for our experience? Rather than looking at their life and seeing what works and what doesn't, the character's search is only for an abstraction, a belief system they think will provide the key. Without a larger context in which to hold its ideas, however, the film becomes a purely intellectual exercise that lacks emotional resonance. Mr. Russell has said, "Philosophy doesn't interest me, except in so far as it is practical and it makes you feel more alive. He should have heeded his own words. 


Howard Schumann
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