‘I Heart Huckabees’: David O. Russell’s disjointed comedy wastes its name cast while testing viewers’ patience
Beginning with the boldly titled 1994 comedy-drama Spanking the Monkey, which was followed by Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings later in the decade, David O. Russell has gained a reputation as a director of “quirky,” out-of-the-mainstream comedies. Russell’s 2004 effort, I Heart Huckabees, his first feature in five years, will surely help to perpetuate that label. Not that the comedy works; for the socially conscious/existentialist film is as funny as a funeral mass and mind-numbingly more tedious.
Yet in this age of formulaic filmmaking, I Heart Huckabees is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. In fact, it’s flabbergasting that an American-made movie distributed by the “indie” subsidiary of a major Hollywood studio – 20th Century Fox’s Fox Searchlight – could have dared to be so abrasively unconventional both in form and content.
If only Russell and his co-writer, Jeff Baena, had taken the trouble to add a whiff of humor, wit, and maturity to the topsy-turvy philosophical proceedings.
Spanking the Nietzsche
The I Heart Huckabees storyline – if the film’s meandering thread can be called that – follows Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a mediocre poet, radical environmentalist, and all-around neurotic who hires two “existential” private eyes (veterans Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) so he can uncover the meaning of his three chance encounters with an African man.
While being tailed around by the metaphysical gumshoes, Albert becomes entangled with the yuppie Brad Stand (Jude Law), a self-proclaimed environmentally conscious executive at Huckabee, a giant retail chain whose top executives want to raze a forest- and marshland-covered area in order to build one more Huckabee megastore.
As if that wasn’t enough, enter a couple more neurotic freaks with a penchant for opaque, oblique, and obtuse verbalizations of ideas: Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a disillusioned fireman who refuses to consume any sort of petroleum derivative, and Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a chic nihilist who has unexpectedly arrived from Paris to prove that if life has any meaning, it’s all about loneliness and misery.
‘Flirting with Disaster’
I Heart Huckabees, however, has no such positive elements. Perhaps Russell thought that the film’s premise would be so hysterical – existentialism, environmentalism, neuroticism – that he would just kick back, let the cameras roll, and allow everything and everyone to get out of control.
‘I Heart Huckabees’ name cast flounders
The end result is that nearly every I Heart Huckabees cast member flounders in the filmmaker’s “existential” muddle.
Jason Schwartzman’s meaning-of-chance-encounters searcher is an insufferable, unwatchable creature. Naomi Watts – outstanding in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and a 2003 Best Actress Oscar nominee for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams – is an embarrassment to watch. An experienced comic performer, Lily Tomlin (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Nashville, 1975) humorlessly goes through the motions.
Two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Rain Man, 1988) barely manages to stay afloat, while two-time Oscar nominee Jude Law (as Best Supporting Actor for The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999; as Best Actor for Cold Mountain, 2003) is little more than a good-looking presence. Surprisingly, Mark Wahlberg is the sole I Heart Huckabees cast member who succeeds in triggering a chuckle or two.
Sex & the kinky Frenchwoman
The presence of Loulou and The Piano Teacher actress – and 12-time Prix César nominee – Isabelle Huppert (she won one Best Actress César, for La Cérémonie, 1995) remains a mystery until her kinky sex scene next to a mud puddle.
Of course, it could also be that the free-spirited Huppert, one of the finest film actresses anywhere, gets a kick out of crossing the North Atlantic every few years to appear in a Hollywood dud – e.g., Heaven’s Gate, The Bedroom Window).
If so, the two-time Cannes Film Festival Best Actress winner (Violette, 1978*; The Piano Teacher, 2001) couldn’t have made a better choice not to showcase her remarkable talent.
* Tied with Jill Clayburgh for An Unmarried Woman.
Phony, shallow ‘uniqueness’
It’s true that an unusual theme will most likely result in an unusual movie. But not necessarily an entertaining or a compelling one.
For the unusual to work, it must have honesty, depth, and, no matter how complex the concepts at hand, clarity of vision. I Heart Huckabees fails because it’s as fake as Jude Law’s environmental concerns, as profound as Isabelle Huppert’s aphrodisiac mud puddle, and as coherent as Jason Schwartzman’s esoteric ruminations.
If you’re interested in contemplating the meaninglessness of existence, the anti-natural aspects of morality, the cowardly compromise of modern life, and the notion of the will to power, bypass I Heart Huckabees altogether and head straight to the source. Check out Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist and Twilight of the Idols.
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Dir.: David O. Russell.
Scr.: David O. Russell and Jeff Baena.
Cast: Jason Schwartzman. Jude Law. Naomi Watts. Dustin Hoffman. Lily Tomlin. Isabelle Huppert. Mark Wahlberg. Tippi Hedren. Talia Shire. Darlene Hunt. Kevin Dunn. Jonah Hill. Jean Smart. Saïd Taghmaoui. Isla Fisher. Richard Jenkins.
‘I Heart Huckabees’ on-set explosion: David O. Russell vs. Lily Tomlin
April 2007 update: Perhaps the explanation for Lily Tomlin’s uninspired performance – and the overall disconnect between the I Heart Huckabees cast members and their characters – can be found in the film’s couple of explosive behind-the-scenes “outtakes,” leaked online (and later removed) not too long after the film’s release.
Chiefly notable is the clip showing an aloof Isabelle Huppert – stuck in a car with Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Naomi Watts, and Mark Wahlberg – checking her hair and make-up while Tomlin yells at David O. Russell (standing off camera), “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Get the fucking thing together! Fuck you!” And so on.
In another behind-the-scenes segment, Russell is the one who erupts, hurling expletives at Tomlin in the presence of cast and crew. This particular sequence has been parodied at CollegeHumor, with Paul Rudd (in the Tomlin role) and Michael Showalter (in the Russell role).
This brief Rudd-Showalter sketch elicits more laughs than I Heart Huckabees throughout the course of its interminable 107 minutes.
Images of Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, and Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees: Fox Searchlight.
I Heart Huckabees movie cast info via the IMDb.
“I Heart Huckabees Review: Dreary & Incoherent Socio-Philosophical Satire Wastes Stellar Cast” last updated in March 2019.