To coincide with 10YA’s upcoming film series (more on that very, very soon), here’s Erik Jaccard on David O. Russell’s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.
I ♥ Huckabees: A Re-View in Four Theses and an Honest Admission
I am having trouble collecting my thoughts today and this inability to focus, and to decide what I want to say about David O. Russell’s gleeful existential dramedy I ♥Huckabees. In fact, I should say up front that part of the reason I’m having this trouble is that I have so much to say. Ten Years Later, this can only seem like a good thing to me, despite the fact that it’s caused me no lack of trouble in throwing something together. In any case, what I’ve come up with here gels somewhere near the end, but it could never really decide what it wanted to be. So I apologize in advance for any confusion. That said, here you have the fruits of my labor: a review in four disconnected theses and one fairly long honest admission.
Thesis 1: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the failure of liberal politics in the USA.
Motherfucking cocksucker motherfucking shit fucker what am I doing? What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m doing the best that I can. I know that’s all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn’t then nothing in this world makes any sense to me. I’m fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit!
This idea is something I mentioned a while back, in my May, 2014 re-view of The Day After Tomorrow. The gist of my comments back then were that Huckabees dramatizes a sense of inner turmoil and frustration within the political left in an era when its fundamental premises have been undercut and marginalized by the triumphant emergence of neoliberal globalization as the dominant ideological force shaping human social and economic life. While it doesn’t take issue with the actual structural adjustments and policy initiatives which characterized this massive shift, the film nonetheless expresses a profound despair at the triumph of the logic which underpinned it and at the impotence of the progressive left to challenge it in any meaningful way. While it’s difficult not to oversimplify, the major conflict as I see it expressed in the film can be reduced to a fairly simple choice between a society conceived as a larger interconnected entity with moral and ethical obligations to the whole, or as a society composed of atomized individual actors populating a marketplace (whose primary loyalty is to their own self-interest). The ‘logic’ of the latter is the one that has won out in our twenty-first century social landscape and its enshrinement as the fundamental structuring principle of social reality is the condition against which the film’s existential crises unfold.
I didn’t catch any of this the first time around, content as I was to just sit back and enjoy the film’s random, intermittent humor. But this time through it was everywhere. I saw it Albert’s egotistical battles with his corporate nemesis, Brad, over the cooptation of Albert’s efforts to save some wetlands from development by Huckabees. Tricking Albert into including him in the campaign as a partner, Brad completely squeezes Albert out of his coalition by changing the logic on which it runs. Albert wants to save open spaces for their intrinsic value as natural space—a reminder of our connection and obligation to the natural world of which we are a part. Brad, on the other hand, sees it as capital which can be exploited for financial or political value. I saw it in Tommy’s frustrated rants about petroleum consumption, which for him is indicative of the country’s shameless, self-serving arrogance in the face of the suffering such consumption might cause around the world. I saw it in the maddening—if hilarious—confrontation between both men and a family of prototypical Bush-era Republicans whose blank refusal to consider any reality outside their own sends Albert and Tommy into apoplectic fits of futile indignation. Finally, I saw it throughout the film in the subtle implication that—as a number of Bush administration politicos might have put it in 2004—“the political battle is over. You lost. Get over it or fuck off.”
While I don’t think this is the only way to read these instances of crisis and despair in the film, it’s very difficult for me now to read them only as crises of individual subjectivity. So much of the film is an overt play on this subject, and on the contrast between ‘the blanket theory’ of holistic interconnectedness offered by ‘existential detectives’ Bernard and Vivian Joffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and the ‘nihilistic’ theory championed by their former student, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). But even these two competing philosophies—reduced to clumsy caricatures of existentialist thought—seem like relics of a faded twentieth century counterculture that has parlayed its own failed social revolution into a kind of neurotic melancholia. But while each side has devised its own therapeutic method for dealing with this condition, neither can provide much more than a list of useful concepts for analysis. Such is the problem with philosophy, one supposes, but ideas like ego, identity, and holism don’t operate in a vacuum. They require context to give them meaning and in this film that context is a political philosophy which goes out of its way to separate human beings from one another in the name of their own freedom. And maybe the point is not that we’re supposed to buy into the concept of ‘existential detectives,’ but rather that we’re meant to read their existence as an indication that current conditions have created individuals who are essentially sick at the thought there is literally nothing else beyond the world in which they live. If the left has often considered its vocation as an affirmation that other worlds are possible, then part of what Huckabees is getting at is the sheer, flummoxed, uncomprehending anger at being told that your dreams don’t matter, that they’re foolish and dangerous and ill-informed, that the best we can do is look out for ourselves.
Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit
Thesis 2: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the role of art and the artist in modern society.
What happens in the meadow at dusk?
I didn’t notice it the first time around, but this time I found myself puzzling over the place poetry plays in the film, and, in grander terms, whether we are to read Albert as a model for the alienation of the poet/creative artists from the modern world. There’s certainly nothing overt in the film to suggest this, but I also think that the way Albert wants to use poetry as a means of communicating some larger truth about the validity of his political work speaks to a long established dissatisfaction on the part of artists over who is allowed to create truth in the world. For example, in a relatively famous 1821 essay titled “A Defence of Poetry,” the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley argues that poets—because they possess a special sensitivity to all things beautiful, pleasing, and harmonic—are no less than the guarantors of moral and social value and the true source of the laws which undergird civil society. As opposed to the prosaic vulgarity of rational science and economics, poetry for Shelley is the form of imaginative art best suited to the expression of higher truths. Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” thus attempts to reassert the centrality of the artistic imagination against the rising tide of empirical science which was then feeding the industrial revolution and transforming European (and in this case, British) society. For many Romantic poets like Shelley, one of the poet’s primary roles in society was to use their overlarge imaginations to see and report on reality for the rest of us. Ever since this time, artists of all stripes have continued to maintain that this is their vocation in defiance of a world which often rudely relegates them to commercial props or ignored seers.
This time it was difficult not to see Albert’s futile—and largely embarrassing—attempts at poetic truth-telling as an amusing play on this tradition. On the one hand, Albert’s reliance on poetry has a social function insofar as it attempts to carve out alternative space for neglected or trammeled values such as the solitary contemplation of nature and its infinite, indefinable qualities. This act has value precisely because, much as the Romantics would have claimed, the dry, formulaic, empirical world of business and technology and social progress actually turned humans away from the truth of the world by quantifying, controlling, and explaining it. If the world becomes suddenly explicable and ordered and controlled, then there is very little for a prophet-genius-poet to do but hammer his or her fists against the wall when their truth—undermined by the ‘factual’ basis of science—falls on deaf ears. This is why it’s so important that we understand ‘what happens in the meadow at dusk.’ Connection with things bigger than you happens in the meadow at dusk; an appreciation for both your own place in the world and also its overpowering sublimity happens in the meadow at dusk; truth, for all intents and purposes, happens in the meadow at dusk. And if mega-corps like Huckabees pave over every inch of natural space, there will be no more private artistic contemplation in the meadow at dusk. One does not contemplate the sublime in a Huckabees parking lot at dusk. Therefore, Albert’s wants his poetry to mean more than just some lonely, crazy guy reading out words aloud in a concrete wasteland. He wants to be one of those unacknowledged legislators of the world.
On the other hand, though, Albert’s big problem—as it also was with many of the Romantics—is that much of his righteous indignation derives from his inflated ego. The Romantic poet was the beginning and end of all things. Genius flowed through ‘him’ and his strong, overwhelming personal feelings bound him to his reader in a flux of natural power and originality. Albert—threatened by Brad’s charisma and his refusal to acknowledge poetry as essential to the Open Spaces movement—reacts throughout the film in defense of his own personality and its perceived denigration at the hands of Brad’s influence. Most insultingly, Brad, who boasts that he has no interest in art or books, is nonetheless accorded to poet-role by Albert’s flock of Open Spaces collaborators. He speaks and people listen; he hands out kitschy presents and people fawn. He seduces the world with an allure meant only to be the province of the artist. Brad’s artistry—schmoozing, dealing, driving the company profit margin up—is the art of the day and his role as ‘artist’ is verified and legitimized while all Albert can do is stand meekly in front of the one rock he saved from developers—his private, contemplative space—and recite poems which sound like they were written by a 12 year-old: “nobody sits like this rock sits/you rock, rock/the rock just sits and is/you show us how to just sit here/and that’s what we need.’ The courage required to seem this ridiculous is actually one of Albert’s strengths—after all, we do need to learn how to just sit and be—but it’s an artistry that is too easily shouted down and shoved to the side, leaving Albert spluttering and indignant.
Thesis 3: If Bells, Keys, or Strings are tinkling, you are in a Jon Brion movie.
I kid—Brion is an accomplished musician, producer, and composer, not a screenwriter or director. Also, he does not own the patent or copyright on the sonic tinkle. All the same, watching Huckabees this time around, with its floaty, effervescent score punctuated by tinkling of all kinds, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that I’d heard the score—or some version of it—before. A little research confirmed for me that I was not actually crazy or dissolving into synesthetic delirium. My first thought was that it all sounded very much like what Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh has done for and with Wes Anderson. Instead, as I learned, it was the other Anderson (Paul Thomas). I also learned that from 1997 to 2004 Jon Brion WAS AN AUTEUR COLLABORATION MACHINE, producing the scores for Anderson’s Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, as well as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, of course, David O. Russell’s I ♥Huckabees (and, later, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York). Now, this revelation doesn’t in any way detract from the achievements of any of these films, which are considerable. However, I feel a certain sense of unnamable disappointment in discovering that all of these films are tethered together by the same master of ethereal sonic quirk. I’ve re-viewed two of the films above—surprisingly, without saying word one about either score—and have treated them both as fantastic one-off marvels of cinematic delight, easy to enjoy and impossible to duplicate. Yet, I now find myself bothered by the fact that one of the reasons I like all of them could be that there is a reproducible tinkle-effect created by the Brion sound sensorium. The dude’s a multi-instrumentalist (like any good composer), so we’re not talking the same tinkle here. But there’s a palpable overlap in what his music does in those movies with what it does in this one. I guess that’s the point, and there probably shouldn’t be anything to complain about here. It’s not like I’m going to stop watching Tim Burton movies because of Danny Elfman or ‘70s Westerns because of Ennio Morricone. Nor should we hold up at the sound of a Brion-esque score simply because we’ve heard those tell-tale tinkles before. The only reason to object to Brion’s influence on all these films is if his scoring somehow flattens them out, reducing them quirky iterations of the same ‘artistic’ or ‘independent’ impulse. There is probably some of this going on—these are commercial products, after all, and each is its own eclectically produced filmic thought experiment—but I’m not willing to judge Brion or his collaborators for indulging in a successful approach, because in each case that perspective is ranged against a different product. It’s the man’s style, diversely applied. Jon Brion, Tinkle Master of your Auteur Dreams.
Thesis 4: Mark Walhberg is at his best as a comedic anti-hero.
I’m at the fire! Where you guys at?
As an actor with pretensions to both the drama and action genres, Mark Wahlberg is often called on to demonstrate a certain muscular gravitas, and to take himself very seriously. However, I don’t think I’m alone in arguing that Wahlberg is at his best when the size and seriousness which make him a popular action-drama stalwart are put to ironic comedic effect. Because so much of what Wahlberg does as an actor is reduced in commercial blockbusters to his ‘hero’ persona, the moments when he’s given the chance to step outside that stereotype are often gleefully amusing. Such is the case with his character in Huckabees, the tortured firefighter anti-hero, Tommy Corn. To see a big bulky hero of a man reduced to the depth of despair by questions of being and nothingness is inherently funny because it’s so rare to see blockbuster heroes question themselves in this way. Heroes are vulnerable to self-doubt, yes, but usually as a function of their hero-quest, where such doubt becomes the ultimate test of their heroism and the impetus for their redemption. In a funny, postmodern twist, then, Tommy is a hero-character who has begun to question the very category of the hero and to reject such an identity being foisted on him. When the Republican family Tommy and Albert visit want to enshrine Tommy as a hero simply for being a firefighter, Tommy has to remind them that this role does not make him heroic in itself.
One of Tommy’s main problems is that he’s a hero who has begun to question whether there can even be such a thing in our world. As he amusingly attempts to explain to his daughter, it seems impossible for him to be a hero to little girls in the USA when his heroism as a privileged American means that other little girls in Third World countries must suffer to provide the shoes that he heroically provides for his family. Rather than providing the stability, certainty, and strength which his archetype would imply, Wahlberg’s Tommy can only spread uncertainty and confusion and angst, in the process tearing down the very possibility of heroic behavior. Wahlberg’s plays this tortured position with an amusing mix of boyish charm and the same bumbling incomprehension for which Family Guy writers once skewered him.
Another source of the Wahlberg’s humor derives from the casting decision to pair his brute size and strength with Jason Schwartzman’s short, scrawny Albert Markovsky. Nearly everything Wahlberg does in relation to Schwartzman is funny in a slapstick-y kind of way because of the contrast in their sizes. When beating one another in the face with a rubber ball in order to produce an evacuated sense of ‘pure being’ (as Caterine Vaubon terms it), Tommy takes all of Albert’s blows without flinching while Tommy’s first blow knocks Albert off his seat. Similarly, the sight of the two riding their bikes around LA (out of a mutual respect for the environment) is equally as amusing because, again, heroes don’t ride bikes. Nerdy Albert Markovskys, yes, but not the Tommy Corns of the world. While Albert careens around town full of suppressed rage and lust, Tommy is ironically called on to be the soft, gentle giant, a well-intentioned boy stuck in a hulky man’s body. This reverses the expectations we would naturally attach to each character, thus producing the comedy.
Now for my honest admission:
I really like this film, I do. In fact, I probably love it. Just as I did when I first watched it at Seattle’s Guild Theater in the fall of 2004, I laughed my ass this time off at certain parts and thoughtfully considered some of its more poignant and self-consciously serious moments as well. But back then I wasn’t all that concerned with finding any coherent meaning in the film’s presentation of existential dilemmas and the humorous and sad situations they produce. In fact, as I recall, I only saw I ♥ Huckabees in the theater at all because I received a free pass to an advanced screening. So I had no idea what to expect and, therefore, wasn’t disappointed.
This time around, however, I could not help but admit that it is easily Russell’s least coherent film to date and that this makes for a viewing experience that is, if not boring, then at least uneven. Now, I think there are ways to read that make it coherent, such as this fine gentleman’s analysis of the film’s deeper philosophical structure (careful, as it’s likely to make your head hurt). But the only way one can really make such readings work is by squeezing out or marginalizing the film’s many other social and cultural narratives (see above). One might also argue that the genre blurring which is otherwise one of Russell’s unique strengths as a filmmaker is something of a liability here, as it’s never entirely clear what kind of film we’re watching. A variety of different types of comedy vie with one another for prominence, among them absurdist comedy, black comedy, slapstick comedy, and vignette-ish situational comedy, with some farce and satire thrown in for good measure. If this were it, we’d at least have an amalgam of comedic modes functioning under the umbrella of the ‘independent comedy.’ But humor—while foregrounded—is not the only mechanism through which we can or should understand existential crisis in the film. And while its presentation is often comedic, its deeper currents of anxiety, doubt, and cynicism make for darker, dramatic undertones which are then also vying for one’s attention. In other words, this is a very ‘busy’ film that is probably trying to do too many things at once. And while it can certainly be an ‘existential comedy’ if read the right way, it is also nothing more than an at-times manically funny cultural and philosophical hodgepodge which never really sticks its landings because it has eight different feet and landing spots and isn’t always sure where each foot is meant to come down.
The film is also uneven in its overreaching surfeit of ambition and cleverness. Part of the problem lies in trying to stage a comedy about real human sadness and psychological breakdown in terms of a philosophical dialogue. It’s a neat idea, as is the inspired flight of fancy behind the creation of ‘existential detectives’ (ha!). However, the comprehension baseline from which the film begins is fairly high. It demands that the viewer have an entry point into the complex discourse necessary to make sense of a great deal of the character development, if not the plot action (which is easy enough to follow). This is why a number of people I’ve encountered over the years have reacted to the film in aggressive, hostile terms. Like Jude Law’s Brad, the average viewer is likely to find that the deeper the film drags them into the “manure of human suffering” the more alienated and unsatisfied they feel. Many I spoke to felt that they were being talked down to, or worse, being talked at. This dynamic is part of the reason that the film can seem preachy, pedantic, or full of itself. As my friend and one-time 10YA writer Chris Martin commented to me, the film kind of feels like you’re sitting through a Philosophy 101 lecture.
While this can be disorienting for the average person, it also sets the bar frightfully low for anyone actually interested in philosophy. As is probably necessary for the medium, most of the actual philosophy in the film is watered down, oversimplified, and often reduced to pop culture icons which leech anything actually interesting out of what’s being said. Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vaubon is the best example of this, as her simplistic nihilism is the worst type of stereotype of postwar French existentialism. It reduces the existentialist demand that we make ethical individual choices because that’s all we have to the popular misconception that choices don’t matter because there exists no greater guarantor of truth that can make them matter. The only thing missing from Vaubon’s left bank cliché is a black beret and a dangling cigarette.
However, there are also moments where the film’s ambition and intelligence coalesce in wonderful, illuminating ways. For example, the film’s answer to the potential alienation of its less philosophically-inclined audience is to use visual conceits to illustrate existential crisis in understandable, two-dimensional terms. Thus, we get to see Albert’s aggressive psychological defense mechanisms translated from philosophical discourse into an amusing montage of Albert hacking up threatening subconscious projections with a machete. The same goes for the attempt at visually explaining the holistic universe thesis, where tiny particles of being float free of the characters’ faces, mixing and mingling with one another and even, as Tommy points out, exposing the tiny gaps in between. Then there’s the less inventive but still touching visual ploy by which the filmmakers trace Albert’s realization of his own interconnectedness with Brad (via shared suffering) by morphing Albert’s face onto a photo of Brad crying. These moments are wonderful for the viewer because they’re so goddamn simple. Now, simple can be bad and oversimplification doesn’t generally get us anywhere when it comes to real, honest to gosh thinking. However, as a form of storytelling,for the majority of filmgoers who have not read Lacan or Hegel or Heidegger or Sartre, it actually comes off as a kind of useful shtick. While I generally tend to value complexity in thought and style, I have to admit that this film’s true complexities are so unattainable for the average person that it forces us to sit back and appreciate the clever ways it goes about making itself intelligible.
All this said, I’m happiest falling back on my original reason for loving I ♥ Huckabees: at times, it’s inventively, side-splittingly, riotously funny. It is most funny, I’d argue, at moments when the unevenness I describe above flattens out and reaches a convergence point at which we can see the genius—so common to Russell’s films—in searching for comedy in dramatic situations and drama in comedic ones. This tension has always characterized Russell’s work, from his early independent films (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster) to his more recent, award-winning Hollywood successes (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). When these moments occur—you could probably pick and choose your favorite absurd quote—you find yourself on the floor laughing, and perhaps staying down there for fear of having to pick yourself up and then seriously consider the seriousness of what was actually said.