'I Heart Huckabees' quotes nihilistic Nietzsche while stellar cast mostly flounders
Beginning with Spanking the Monkey (not a film about animal abuse), David O. Russell has gained a reputation as a director of quirky comedies. I Heart Huckabees is no exception. Not that the comedy works – the film, which might as well have been called “Spanking the Nietzsche,” is as funny as a funeral mass. Perhaps less so.
But in this age of formulaic filmmaking, I was flabbergasted that an American movie distributed by the “indie” subsidiary of a major Hollywood studio – 20th Century Fox's Fox Searchlight – could dare to be so abrasively unconventional both in form and content.
'I Heart Huckabees' synopsis
Written by David O. Russell and Jeff Baena, the I Heart Huckabees storyline – if the film's meandering thread can be called that – follows Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a mediocre poet and radical environmentalist who hires two “existential” private eyes (Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman) so as to discover the meaning of his three chance encounters with an African man.
While being tailed around by the metaphysical gumshoes, the neurotic Albert becomes entangled with the yuppie Brad Stand (Jude Law), a (purportedly) pro-environment executive at Huckabee, a giant retail chain whose big bosses want to raze an area of forests and marshlands to build one more Huckabee megastore.
As if that wasn't enough, enter fellow neurotics Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a disillusioned fireman who refuses to consume any sort of petroleum derivative, and Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a total nihilist who has unexpectedly arrived from Paris to prove that life is all about loneliness and misery.
Talented cast wasted
In the past, David O. Russell's films have been at least intermittently funny and the director has elicited several good performances from his cast members – Mary Tyler Moore's hilarious turn in Flirting with Disaster comes to mind. Unfortunately, he doesn't succeed on either count here. Perhaps Russell thought that I Heart Huckabees' premise would be so hysterical that he would just kick back, let the cameras roll, and allow everything and everyone to get out of control.
As a result, nearly every cast member flounders in this “existential” mess. Jason Schwartzman makes his character insufferable, the talented Naomi Watts – outstanding in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. – is an embarrassment to watch, while an unfunny Lily Tomlin just goes through the motions. (Please see update below.) Dustin Hoffman (barely) manages to stay afloat, but it's only Mark Wahlberg's high-strung fireman that gets a few chuckles.
Sex and the kinky Frenchwoman
Isabelle Huppert's presence in I Heart Huckabees remained a mystery until her kinky sex scene next to a mud puddle. Then it all became clear. Or it could be that the free-spirited Huppert, one of the finest film actresses anywhere, gets a kick out of crossing the Atlantic every few years to appear in a dismal Hollywood movie, e.g., Heaven's Gate, The Bedroom Window. If so, she couldn't have made a better choice not to showcase her considerable talents.
It's true that an unusual theme will quite likely result in an unusual movie – but not necessarily a good one. For the unusual to work, it must have depth. I Heart Huckabees is as profound as Huppert's aphrodisiac mud puddle. Minus the aphrodisiac properties.
'I Heart Huckabees' on-set explosion
Update: Perhaps the explanation for Lily Tomlin's uninspired performance can be found in the explosive I Heart Huckabees “outtakes.”
Particularly notable is Isabelle Huppert, keeping her cool (and looking more than a tad bored) throughout one ugly incident, with Tomlin – stuck in a car (apparently for hours) with several other cast members – yelling at David O. Russell (who is off camera), “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Get the fucking thing together! Fuck you!” And so on.
In fact, while Tomlin is freaking out Huppert attempts to ensure that her hair and make-up are all in the right place.
Do check out the David O. Russell-Lily Tomlin on-set blowup parody featuring Paul Rudd (in the Lily Tomlin “role”) and Michael Showalter (as David O. Russell). The sketch is infinitely funnier than anything found in I Heart Huckabees.
I Heart Huckabees (2004).
Dir.: David O. Russell.
Scr.: David O. Russell and Jeff Baena.
Cast: Jason Schwartzman. Isabelle Huppert. Dustin Hoffman. Jude Law. Naomi Watts. Lily Tomlin. Mark Wahlberg. Tippi Hedren. Talia Shire. Darlene Hunt. Kevin Dunn. Jonah Hill. Jean Smart. Saïd Taghmaoui. Isla Fisher. Richard Jenkins.
Images of Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlins, Jude Law, and Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees: Fox Searchlight.
I Heart Huckabees movie cast info via the IMDb.