Have a Nice Nothing

Zip it up, we'll take it: Jason Schwartzman and Dustin Hoffman in 'I Huckabees'
Fox Searchlight

Flummoxed by its own fixation on the phenomenology of American life in 2004, I Huckabees sweats bullets of big ideas and big emotions; it's hopped up on existential anxiety, Zen dilemmas, and Bush II-era liberal despondency. David O. Russell's manic, melancholy ensemble comedy inverts Sartrian nausea by hungrily orchestrating a feeding frenzy of chewy concepts--among them the fiction of the self, the nature of space and time, and the rewards of attaining "pure being" by whacking oneself repeatedly in the face with a large rubber ball. Reaching cerebral fever pitch early and staying there, Huckabees is a call to symbolic arms, a cry into the wilderness, a wildly semaphoring gesture of quixotic hope in terrible times.

Can we plant our feet on some dry concrete amid all this abstraction? Let's give it a shot. Frustrated environmentalist Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is being shunted aside at his own "Open Spaces" initiative, and he feels betrayed by boardroom golden child Brad Stand (Jude Law), a sales exec at Huckabees--a sort of upmarket Wal-Mart that dubs itself "The Everything Store." Brad, presiding over the corporate bacteria that's eating away at Open Spaces' precious woods and wetlands, is a company man through and through: He even cohabits with corporate mascot "Miss Huckabees," a.k.a. Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert wonders about a possibly significant trio of chance encounters with a mysterious "African guy" named Steven, who almost mowed Albert down in a car while the earnest young activist was planting a tree in a Huckabees parking lot. So he hires husband-and-wife "existential detectives" Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), whose methodology includes (but is not limited to) zipping up Albert in a bag and surveying him while he eats his breakfast cereal.

Buoyed by Jon Brion's keening circus-waltz score and a welter of tremendous performances, I Huckabees is stuffed with restless chatter, tapping into the same gabby spirit as Russell's slapstick screwballer Flirting with Disaster (1996). Talk is the hard currency of the picture (admittedly, cinematographic composition remains a mere utility in Russell's playbook); not to speak in this universe can be tantamount to provocation. Nihilist philosopher Caterine Vaubert (Isabelle Huppert)--whose business card touts "cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness"--is the Jaffes' former pupil and current nemesis; she silently stalks the couple's movements as if in ghostly rebuke to their essentially sunny professional outlook. Certainly no words need apply when Caterine and Albert do it doggy-style in a mucky patch of woods, or when disaffected Dawn first locks eyes with excitable firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg).

Tommy is the soul of I Huckabees, an impulsive, curious young man profoundly unmoored since "that big September thing" and obsessed with the evils of the global petroleum industry--as if he had been forced to drink from the same batch of crude oil that Wahlberg's Troy Barlow choked down in Three Kings (1999), Russell's political tragicomedy of the first Gulf War. (Russell has completed a half- hour documentary follow-up called "Soldiers Pay," which Warner Bros. refused to append to its forthcoming Kings DVD.) After fellow Jaffe clients Tommy and Albert join forces on their quest into being and nothingness, they end up at supper with coincidence man Steven--revealed as a refugee from Sudan--and his SUV-driving, thoroughly Red State adoptive family, smugly resplendent in their churchgoing confidence that God is on America's side.

"What's goin' on there?" Tommy and Albert wonder as they retreat from this hostile, picture-perfect suburban home. For all their bewilderment, they might have stumbled onto some medievalist Martian surgical theater or a meeting of Skull & Bone. Russell's riotous dinner-table set piece deftly illustrates America's schizoid body politic wherein half the country supports an administration so demonstrably contemptuous of common sense and decency that the other half can often do little more than splutter and shake with impotent rage. "How am I not myself?" Bernard asks Brad over and over again, as if intoning a mantra. If only America could honestly ask itself the same question.

The New Yorker's David Denby has proclaimed I Huckabees "an authentic disaster." Well, sure, it's a bit of a mess, but so are we all since that big September thing--and epistemological swamps scarcely come frothier or more fecund. To borrow a line from Being John Malkovich, the film opens a metaphysical can of worms. Russell and Jeff Baena's script, which draws on the Buddhist scholarship of Robert "Uma's dad" Thurman (Russell's former teacher at Columbia), echoes Charlie Kaufman's screenplays in its unhinged penetrations of memory and the subconscious. Yet Russell's film can most usefully be triangulated with two other existential experiments of recent years. Huckabees is as impeccably topsy-turvy as Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis (1996), wherein identity slippage and corporate hegemony cast long shadows over suburbia's verdant lawns. And it's as searching and plaintive as Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), whose liquid images summoned a mutable, mercurial dream world where human characters suddenly shape-shift into clouds or subatomic particles. In Huckabees, faces fragment into drifting mosaics, free to float and mingle with each other.

I Huckabees pushes so hard to upset and shatter what Vivian calls the "surface of things" that it frays and exhausts itself by the last reel; the film, like many of us, is thrilled, depressed, and perhaps half-crazed by the massive existential quandary of how to live a responsible, even meaningful life in a cruel, careless world. Against all odds, Russell is a humanist, and as such he orchestrates hard-won catharsis, tenuous resolution, and even a few grace notes of contentment for his scattered souls. Wasn't it happy guy Albert Camus who wrote, "In depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer"?

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