There is a collection of back-to-back moments in David O. Russell’sI Heart Huckabees (2004) that define the film. The first underlines the movie’s reason for being; the second is the visual representation of how one feels while watching it. In the first moments a frustrated model who does ads for a Wal-Mart-like megastore (Naomi Watts) asks two existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) for advice. The detectives smile smugly at her while they irritatingly swivel the spoons in their coffee mugs, gratingly scraping the bottom of the cups. Cut instantly to the second moment in which a neurotic environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman) hits a philosophical fireman (Mark Wahlberg) repeatedly in the face with a rubber ball. I Heart Huckabees seems so gleefully opaque, frustratingly happy to go out of its way to condescendingly confuse and bewilder that the experience can seem abusive.
The movie mainly follows Albert (Schwartzman) who is frustrated that the coalition he set up to save natural spaces from what he calls suburban sprawl is being smoothly taken from him by a slick salesman named Brad Stand (Jude Law). He hires Bernard and Vivian (Hoffman and Tomlin) and then the movie descends into a swamp of intentionally unclear psychobabble and cheap-looking fantasy sequences. The detectives, who apparently glean metaphysical insight into Albert by watching him at all times, snapping untimely pictures and going through his garbage, try to explain to him that everything is connected. They introduce Albert to Tommy (Wahlberg), who is similarly suffering, and try to convince Albert that he would be better off if he spent significant time in a body bag visualizing himself decapitating Brad. A rival existentialist (Isabelle Huppert) gets involved, trying to sway Albert away from Bernard and Vivian’s hopeful outlook by explaining that nothing is connected.
Starting in the late ’90s, there was a small movement in American movies toward deliberately strange meta-narratives, where existential or psychological issues were manifested literally. The leaders of this movement were Spike Jonze, who ushered it in withBeing John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), and Michel Gondry with Human Nature (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Their constant collaborator was Charlie Kaufman who wrote the screenplays for all four of those movies. The movement was over by the time Kaufman contributedSynecdoche, New York (2008), which he directed and incidentally is the finest of the bunch, but American tastes for weird had ended and Jonze and Gondry are now directing more traditional fare like Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and The Green Hornet (2011). A movie like I Heart Huckabees, makes you acutely aware of the risks that a Kaufman takes on and just how quickly things can go badly for an endeavor like this. The script by Russell and Jeff Baena is like something out of a terrible fringe festival, pompously self-important while hiding what it means then rapping your wrists for even looking. I don’t need to be spoon-fed meaning, a little ambiguity never hurt anyone and I enjoy interpretation, but I Heart Huckabees wants it both ways by only giving us enough information to discredit theories about its point and none that allows us to create our own. I can’t claim to understand the intricacies of the difficult Synecdoche, New York, but it was fertile ground for personal analysis, a courtesy I Heart Huckabees is unwilling to extend.
Maybe it’s about the need for a type of therapy, this odd, painful version of healing. Maybe it’s about the dubiousness of all therapy. Maybe it’s just a terrible movie. I Heart Huckabees is so enraptured with itself that it hides away all evidence of those possibilities, except for the last one. That it tries to be funny further sullies the experience. Comedy is dependent on acting as a funhouse mirror to reality, but it needs reality to reflect against. I Heart Huckabees isn’t grounded in any kind of reality that we can tell what it’s skewering. There’s a hint that it wants to denigrate the commercialism of society, but that idea is never developed, and it presents the agents of individualism as such irritating gascons that it’s hard to get behind them.
It became clear early on that the movie wasn’t going to give me anything that I could comprehend, so I tried to enjoy it on the level of the performances and the bright, bouncy score by Jon Brion, but that produced little joy. Hoffman and Tomlin in particular are windy irritants, spewing nonsense to seemingly get a rise out of everyone. Law and Watts make good yuppies, and the closest the movie comes to being compelling is during Law’s realization of his own emptiness, but that doesn’t last long. Schwartzman does the best he can, and then there’s Wahlberg’s admirable zeal truly put to the test here. But the rest of the talented cast, which includes Richard Jenkins, Jean Smart, Kevin Dunn and Tippi Hedren, are wasted in a Kafkaesque competition for who can say the most obstinately frustrating thing, except there is no Gregor Samsa or Josef K. to act as our proxy. The movie plays like an inside joke that doesn’t seem very funny in the first place.