“What's the most important thing in life?” That is the question Special Forces Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) poses, out of the blue, at a pivotal moment in David O. Russell's 1999 film Three Kings, his absurdist take on the aftermath of Desert Storm. This man-of-action's answer? “Necessity.”
Five years, two wars, and one national catastrophe later, the same question, more or less, provides the basis of Russell's extraordinary and truly delightful new comic panorama, the improbably titled and unfashionably Heartfelt I ♥ Huckabees. But this time there is no one-word answer.
Russell's protagonist is Albert (Jason Schwartzman), a frustrated activist-poet and the founder of Open Spaces, a coalition dedicated to curbing suburban sprawl. Troubled by three chance encounters with an “African guy,” Albert hires a pair of “existential investigators,” Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin) and her husband, Bernard (Dustin Hoffman), in order to get to the bottom of this apparently random chain of events. Husband and wife work opposite ends of the case: while Vivian investigates Albert's day-to-day routine, Bernard sets about breaking down his conception of reality, uncovering the fear and loathing that rage within Albert's psyche and showing him how to accept the interconnectedness of existence.
Albert's nemesis is golden boy Brad Stand (Jude Law in a remarkable performance), a smooth, charming sales exec at Huckabees, “the everything store”- think Wal-Mart with a breezy pop-culture makeover. The happy-face personification of corporate control and conquest, Brad is in the process of co-opting Albert's coalition to further promote the Huckabees brand. Brad and his girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts), who, as “Miss Huckabees,” serves as the company's national spokesmodel, are the perfect wasp couple—a living advertisement for inauthenticity as a way of life.
As part of his “dismantling,” Albert is assigned his own personal “other”—the belligerent, dysfunctional fireman Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), who is consumed with an obsessive belief that the petroleum industry is the root of all the world's ills. Meanwhile, the Jaffes face a nemesis of their own in Caterine Vaubert (Isabelle Huppert), “France's dark lady of philosophy.” She stalks Albert and Tommy in an effort to make them defect to her nihilistic credo, according to which “universal truth is cruelty, manipulation, and meaninglessness.”
With conceit piled on conceit, I ♥ Huckabees may sound a bit silly—but so did Being John Malkovich. Indeed, Russell's film, like Three Kings before it, is unavoidably part of the millennial reality-upending zeitgeist that has given us The Matrix and the collected works of Charlie Kaufman. Moreover, you could read I ♥ Huckabees as a Zen-influenced response to the ironic nihilism of Fight Club, another reality-warping meditation on materialist discontent and psychic anomie. Perhaps Huckabees could be more profitably likened to both Alain Resnais's great 1981 film, Mon oncle d'Amérique, and Richard Linklater's life-is-a-dream masterpiece Waking Life.
More deeply idiosyncratic, more subversive, and yet more sweetly beguiling than any of the director's previous films, I ♥ Huckabees constructs a sui generis film of ideas, building on the anti-naturalistic tendencies of Three Kings with its sporadic suspensions of narrative, subjective visualizations, and surreal incongruities. Along the way it takes aim at materialism, celebrity worship, the dominance of corporate culture, and the denial-riddled inauthenticity of modern identity. Nothing if not ambitious, Russell handles everything with the lightest of touches and a sense of unexpected joy, greatly aided by Jon Brion's lilting, buoyant score. Lowdown slapstick meets genuine angst, while satiric jabs collide with deep thoughts and playful profundity as Russell plays multiple personal/philosophical viewpoints against each other until his game ends in a mutually agreeable tie.
I ♥ Huckabees is a rarity—a tremendously optimistic film for a truly dark time. It should make you laugh, and it might just make you cry. And if you've always wanted to understand the dynamic between “pure being” and “the drama of human suffering,” or fathom what happens in a meadow at dusk, this is the movie for you.