In David O. Russells latest film, I HEART HUCKABEES, the key to happiness is not finding true love, or landing the dream job, nor even success on the material plane. The key to happiness has nothing to do with altering the external accidents of existence, but rather with changing the inner view of what existence means. Its a tall order for the individual and an even taller order for the filmmaker chronicling the process. Fortunately, Russell exhibits a sure hand with his subject matter, from Camus absurdism to Buddhisms unity of the universe, to his dogged optimism about it all.
Our individual is Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), whose crisis of paradigm is triggered by a coincidence that is nagging at him. That would be the tall, genial African man who keeps popping up in Alberts life, such as a memorabilia shop where he is buying autographed photos of celebrities and Albert is salting the stock with photos of himself. Hes no celebrity, though. Rather hes a struggling environmentalist whose greatest achievement is saving a rock. His success in saving the rest of the swamp is Brad Stand (Jude Law), Alberts impossibly beautiful, impossibly suave liaison with Huckabees department store, and Russells metaphor for the material world, which has shown some interest in helping the swamps cause.
Another coincidence, finding a business card in a borrowed jacket, brings him to the offices of Vivien (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard (Dustin Hoffman), existential detectives who will, on a sliding scale fee plan, follow him 24/7 in order to investigate not the coincidences, which is what Albert wants. No, they will get to the root of what makes Albert tick and thereby correct his angst, not to mention his obsession with what may or may not be a coincidence. Formally dressed in heels and carefully tailored dresses, Tomlins puckish smile is a counterpoint to her cool no-nonsense approach as well as to Hoffmans rumpled person and passionate explanations about the couples philosophical premise that everything is interconnected. Its just a matter of crawling into a body bag and pondering it with a little guided imagery to see it clearly.
Vivien and Bernard introduce Albert to his other, fireman Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), whose trauma over 9/11 has distilled itself into a hatred of all things petroleum. Together this oddly dynamic duo takes on the journey to enlightenment together. The arch nemeses include not just Brad, who is the bane of Alberts existence and also his idol, but also a mysterious nihilistic French philosopher at personal and professional odds Vivien and Bernard, who delivers sotto voice declamations on lifes futility before rolling in the mud as a prelude to carnal satisfaction.
Russell here is not interested in the usual narrative structure and this is just as well. It would hardly work when the subject is the meaning of life. That he has crafted this exploration in a witty, discomfiting comedy adds a welcome and welcoming resonance. There is a deceptively insouciant verve to the proceedings, to the vivid characters, and to the imaginative visuals that leap with impunity over the barrier of language to speak directly to the consciousness. The detectives offices, for example, are formal, even cold, but nestle such piquant touches as an homage to Magritte on a hat rack. The characters dance not always nimbly around the roadblocks that both the universe and their personal philosophies throw in their way. The process forces them and, by extension the audience, to rethink assumptions and received wisdom. There are obvious ones, such as Huckabees scantily dressed spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts) suffering an identity crisis and donning baggy clothes and an Amish bonnet, and more esoteric ones about the repercussions of that on the rest of the players all presented with both wit and flights of physical comedy. The performances have a scholastic formalism to them, not unlike the corporate offices of Huckabees or the detectives, but with passions beneath that struggle to break free, and sometimes do with results that are both deliberately funny and cathartic. That Law delivers a dazzlingly nuanced performance, revealing the depths of his character and that characters surprise in finding them is a lesson in itself about underestimating someone who could, quite easily, skate by on his looks alone.
I HEART HUCKABEES is a comedy of ideas that is as likely to provoke a hmmm as a giggle, the which is what I suspect Russell is going for. Hes achieved something remarkable here. Hes taken philosophy and made it what it should have been all along, a way of looking at the world that enriches daily life, not a dusty set of rules with no relevance beyond the ivory tower.