TIFF Report: I Heart Huckabees Review
With a mix of elements that owes a little bit to Charlie Kaufman, a little bit to Spike Jonez and a little bit to Andersons Wes and p.t. David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees will definitely be one of the best films to come out of America this year and will also almost certainly prove just a little too strange to catch on with a mainstream audience.
So where to begin? Jason Shwartzman stars as Albert Markovski, an environmental poet who works as the head of an environmental group - a position he is slowly being forced out of by corporate suit Brad Stand (Jude Law) who wants to co-opt the group to generate some positive press for Huckabees, the corporate giant he works for. Troubled by this, and convinced that three chance meetings with a tall African man have some deeper meaning Markovski hires Bernard and Vivian, a pair of "existential detectives" he discovers through a business card found in a borrowed suit jacket, to essentially sort out his life, teach him the meaning of it all, and lead him to the secrets to life and happiness.
Yes, Russell is being a little tongue-in-cheek when he tags this film an "existential comedy" but only a little. This is theater of the absurd played out to extremes even farther along than the Coen Brothers are typically willing to go, littered with bizarre set pieces, a biting critique of both consumer culture and reactionary activism, sparkling dialogue and philosophy-class humor. Shwartzman plays a sort of bewildered everyman trying to make sense of the world while also living in complete denial of pretty much everything and he turns in the sort of character that Woody Allen may have if he was much younger, far more in touch with the times, and anything close to relevant any more. This is a cerebral comedy, one that demands a lot of its audience, but those who get it will get it hard.
So where are Huckabees weaknesses? From an artistic standpoint I'd say it doesn't really have any. From a commercial standpoint this thing is going to be a beast to package and sell. Its strengths? Let's start with the technical aspects and work our way into the more obvious stuff.
First there is Russell's script which obviously owes a debt to Kaufman and Jonez - and let's not forget that Jonez had a starring role in Russell's previous film. This is a connection that has obviously endured and had a profound influence on Russell's work here. The writing is impeccably tight, challenging and littered with classic moments and laugh out loud one liners. Shwartzman's opening monologue, for one, manages to be staggeringly vulgar, immediately familiar and hysterically funny while also establishing his character's frame of mind in an instant. Russell refuses to talk down to his audience and, though he couches the more serious elements in humor, this is a script that deals with some very serious questions about life, identity, reality and purpose - with a lot of ideas lifted out of Buddhist thought - and manages to make the concepts accessible and wildly entertaining without oversimplifying or taking any cheap, easy routes out. That's no mean feat.
Second, there's the score from Jon Brion. Brion has proved again and again that he's one of the best film music men in the world, and he does it again here. While Russell gives his characters the words it's Brion's music that sells this odd yet very familiar world. No other composer could have pulled this off.
Third, there's the cinematography. Russell resists the urge to high style, recognizing correctly that playing things small allows us to believe the characters where going for the big, cheap laugh would have undermined the whole enterprise. Even his effects sequences, while clever, are rooted in reality and simplicity. He creates waking dreams, much as Michel Gondry did with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and keeps them rooted strongly enough in reality that they never pull us out of the film.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the cast. Jude Law and Naomi Watts are their standard, superb selves. Dustin Hoffman - who I normally don't much care for - and Lily Tomlin are pitch perfect as the wildly eccentric existential detectives, as is Isabelle Huppert as their rival. The big revelations, however, come from Mark Wahlberg and Jason Shwartzman. Shwartzman has had a hard time finding serious roles since Rushmore and it's been a little sad to see him wasting his talents in films like Slackers. Spun was an indication that he was actively seeking out harder edged roles but here, for the first time, Shwartzman is given a fully adult role and he absolutely nails it. His performance is flawless. As for Wahlberg, this is very likely the best performance of his career - without a doubt his best since Boogie Nights - and he shows a side to himself and a range that I never would have dreamt existed. Wahlberg was a surprising casting choice for me, but it turned out to be a perfect one, and this could be a role that resucitates and expands his weakening career.