- A brazenly uncommercial effort, David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees is a messy, rambling, overlong social satire/“existential” comedy that wastes its international name cast.
- Leaked I Heart Huckabees “outtakes” are evidence that the film’s enthralling drama (or comedy, depending on your point of view) took place behind the scenes.
David O. Russell’s disjointed ‘existential’ comedy I Heart Huckabees wastes its name cast while testing audiences’ patience
Beginning with the boldly titled 1994 comedy-drama Spanking the Monkey, which in the ensuing years would be followed by Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, David O. Russell has gained a reputation as a creator of “quirky,” out-of-the-mainstream comedies. Russell’s latest effort, I Heart Huckabees, his first feature in five years, will surely help to perpetuate that assessment. Not that the comedy works; the philosophical/socially conscious 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 in both form and content.
If only Russell and 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 head honchos want to raze a forest- and marshland-covered area in order to build one more Huckabee megastore.
Out of the blue, enter a couple more neurotic freaks with a penchant for opaque verbal diarrhea: Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a disillusioned fireman who refuses to consume any kind of petroleum derivative, and Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a chic nihilist who has unexpectedly arrived from Paris to prove that in case life has any meaning, it’s all about loneliness and misery.
By the time the end credits start rolling, most audience members will likely see things Vauban’s way.
Flirting with Disaster: Superior predecessor
David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, for one, has its ups and downs, but the 1996 comedy starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and Téa Leoni is at least intermittently funny. Besides, Russell elicited several good performances, notably Mary Tyler Moore’s, seen in a memorable cameo as Stiller’s maladjusted adoptive mother.
I Heart Huckabees, however, has no such positive elements. Perhaps Russell thought that the film’s premise would be so hysterical – existentialism, environmentalism, neuroticism – and his cast so proficient that he would just kick back, let the cameras roll, and allow everything and everyone to take their own path.
I Heart Huckabees stellar cast flounders
The end result is that nearly every I Heart Huckabees cast member, including those with Oscar pedigrees, flounders in the filmmaker’s “existential” muddle.
Jason Schwartzman’s meaning-of-chance-encounters searcher (and apparent David O. Russell alter ego) is an insufferable, unwatchable creature. An experienced comic performer, Lily Tomlin (Best Supporting Actress nominee for Nashville, 1975) humorlessly goes through the motions. Naomi Watts – outstanding in Mulholland Dr. and a 2003 Best Actress nominee for 21 Grams – is an embarrassment to watch.
Two-time Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Rain Man, 1988) barely manages to stay afloat, while two-time nominee Jude Law (supporting for The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999; lead for Cold Mountain, 2003) is little more than a good-looking presence.
Surprisingly, Mark Wahlberg, one of the leads in Russell’s Three Kings, is the sole I Heart Huckabees cast member who succeeds in triggering a chuckle or two.
Sex & the kinky Frenchwoman
The presence of Isabelle Huppert – 12-time Prix César nominee (including one Best Actress win for La Cérémonie, 1995) and two-time Cannes Film Festival winner – remains a mystery until we get to watch 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 Story of Women and The Piano Teacher actress couldn’t have made a better choice not to showcase her remarkable talent.
Phony, shallow ‘uniqueness’
It’s true that an unusual theme will generally 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)
Director: David O. Russell.
Screenplay: 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 in I Heart Huckabees – and the overall disconnect between other cast members and their characters – can be found in the two explosive behind-the-scenes “outtakes” leaked online (and later removed) not too long after the film’s release.
Most noteworthy is the clip showing an aloof Isabelle Huppert – stuck in a car with 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.
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I Heart Huckabees movie cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, and Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees: Fox Searchlight.
“I Heart Huckabees Review: Rambling Satire Wastes Stellar Cast” last updated in October 2020.