I heart Huckabees – David O. Russell and what happens in the meadow at dusk. (Film review)
It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog (have I told you lately that I love you?) that I heart Huckabees is not only my favorite David O. Russell film, but its one of my favorite films to watch and enjoy – perhaps it’s not completely convincing in its approach and hasn’t quite hit its intended mark (which is?) but it’s easily his moist ambitious project, and one of the most ambitious scripts to have come out of America in the early part of this century. It’s stand alone in the Russell oeuvre in that it is different to any of his other films, but it also marks a point when he moved toward a more mainstream aesthetic, possibly because the film didn’t work with critics or the box office, possibly because Russell was doing a little of that getting-over-himself all these current directors seem to need to do. Whatever the reasoning, from this film forward, David O. Russell condescends to do films he claim’s he would never have done before, and they are to become his most successful. I heart Huckabees (or I love Huckabees – it’s one of the points of the film that you can sort of call it what you want) is laced with famous controversies from the inspiration of Robert Thurman, his zen Buddhist philosopher teacher in college who is also Uma Thurman’s dad, to the now infamous Lily Tomlin public brawls, to the autobiographical nature of the film that was written, in the end specifically for Jason Schwartzman, the back story being as zany as the film itself, which ends up being a kind of emblematic very serious and controlled version of a kind of chaos theory. The Dustin Hoffman character is based on Robert Thurman, and the likeness has been pilfered right down to Hoffman’s image of wild hair and crumpled suits.
Part of I heart Huckabees problem is that it is so obviously intended to make Russell look like a genius, and I say that as a person who greatly admires Russell’s obvious intelligence, but desperation to be seen like that is never an attractive proposition in art. Russell had two choices, if he didn’t want the film to be all Godard-French-New-Wavey, he could go the Wes Anderson route and make each character BE it’s philosophical symbol, or take on the Shane Carruth route and use the jingoistic work as part of what both captures and alienates the audience, but he has a bet both ways, using his character to explain their philosophical positions, but with too much detail at the wrong moments and not enough detail at others, so that the tension, suspense and general plot is almost explained in one of the worst examples of telling not showing. It seems at times that Russell almost forgot he was writing a film script, with Albert Markovski’s (Schwartzman) central question never being clearly and properly asked and never clearly and properly answered. His actions, such as taking on the existential detectives (Tomlin and Hoffman) in the first place and then being convinced to move to Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) are only discussed, they are not embodied in action, therefore without a good grasp of the conflicting philosophies Russell wants to highlight, the audience is left floundering in his wake, which one can’t help thinking might have been the point all along.
As for the philosophies themselves, the best breakdown I’ve ever seen is Platochronics example on reddit, which boils down to this:
Albert (Jason Swartzman) is the self, who we find out through interviews etc is David O. Russell, but curiously is also Jason Schwartzman. Catherine (Isabelle Huppert) is nihilism, and the idea that must be overcome if the self is to derive any meaning from their life. Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin) are each ontological perspectives and epistemological perspectives, his task being to see things in terms of the universal which he calls the blanket, while her task is to observe experience itself and take notes. Brad (Jude Law) is the superficial world of corporate capitalism and Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), who becomes Other to the Self, is reductionism, who only takes science as the credible pathway to knowledge. Dawn (Naomi Watts) is holism, in that she only knows the a priori knowledge of Bernard and has no interest in the events of every day life. Finally, Ger Duany as Stephen Nimieri is the African man that Albert keeps seeing everywhere who represents coincidence and the way that the self uses coincidence and accidents to give meaning to their lives.
The characters are all symbols, not embodied principles of these roles and this is part of the problem of emotional distance in I heart Huckabees. Each has to explain their theories and in a script that moves very quickly when words are often jumbled each other the other, audience alienation is inevitable and Russell is left with his problem of a potential deliberate alienation through jargon. As I said in the first paragraph, it doesn’t mean the film doesn’t work if you have the key (noted above) and with that key, the film comes alive, but there is little room for the audience member who is separate to the essential information. There are some stunning comic moments, particularly one I’ve highlighted above, where we ask ourselves what happens in the meadow at dusk. The answer is nothing and everything happens in the meadow at dusk, as the Christian and the Philosopher cry out at the same time. It’s also very funny to consider who Russell pairs together at the end, in the context of their philosophies. These moments are posited against some of Russell’s more common themes, such as the eroticism of the strict older woman, as seen in the seductive cleavage in Lily Tomlin’s otherwise very conservative dress, and the sexuality of Isabelle Huppert posited against the clinical commercial sex appeal of Naomi Watts. Even though these have been regular themes in Russell films, they will start to disappear in his next few films, as he takes a far more conservative and Hollywood friendly turn. I enjoyed American Hustle greatly, but I find myself regularly floating back to I heart Huckabees, and probably always will.