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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005

You gotta love them

I Heart Huckabees

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: David O. Russell
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 20
[See Japan Times movie listings]

There's a certain generation of filmmakers in the States -- think Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman -- who share a similar attitude toward their craft.

News photo
From left: Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin in "I Heart Huckabees"

Although they are of a generation who grew up watching the great, personal, auteurist films of the 1960s and '70s, they also realize that times now are too cynical, too post-modern to work with the same earnestness or self-importance as their forebears.

On the other hand, neither have they rejected all meaning and commitment, taking the nihilistic, life-is-just-a-frigging-joke approach of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and their ilk. Instead, they've managed to tackle big-picture themes with a light touch, hedging their bets through a healthy embrace of humor and quirks. While a French director like Bruno Dumont would have no problem describing his films as addressing The Meaning Of Life, the American indie generation would be more likely to tackle "life" and stuff.

Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," which explored dreams vs. reality and the definition of reality in the format of a cartoon, is a prime example, but topping even this is David O. Russell's "I Heart Huckabees," a film that manages to present some very profound ideas in a totally silly way. It's a total piss-take on the American obsession with pop-psychotherapy, while also recognizing that the roots of this lie in very real and unanswered questions: who am I? Does my life have any purpose? Is my identity the "real me" ? The miracle is that he does this within a comedy that even The Three Stooges could love.

That Russell is a fellow traveler of this cinematic generation is clear enough from his collaborators: there's John Brion, from "Eternal Sunshine" and "Magnolia," as composer; K K. Barrett, from "Lost In Translation" and "Being John Malkovich" as set designer; Mark Bridges, from "Boogie Nights" and "Punch Drunk Love," doing the costumes; and in the leads, Jason Schwartzman from "Rushmore" and Mark Wahlberg from "Boogie Nights."

While this helps place Russell in a certain context, he certainly has his own style to boast. With the exception of 1999's "Three Kings," an acerbic political critique disguised as a cynical Gulf War action flick, his films have been of a type. With "Spanking The Monkey," the '94 Sundance hit, " Flirting With Disaster" which topped the critics' lists in 1996, and now "Huckabees," Russell's flicks have consistently taken a post-Woody Allen bent, liberally employing personal traumas -- of family, sex, and self-identity -- as the stuff of screwball comedy. He's damn good at it, too, and "Huckabees" may be his best yet.

The film follows Albert (Schwartzman), the leader of an environmentalist nongovernmental organization who's in the midst of a mid-life crisis some two decades too early. He's frustrated that his ambitions as a poet aren't taken seriously, that he's losing control of his organization, and that he's filled with hate/envy for Brad (Jude Law), a smarmy yuppie who works for the Wal-mart-esque super-store chain, Huckabees. (And what average guy out there doesn't feel that toward Jude Law on some level? Brilliant casting.)

Brad has it all: charm, good looks, money, power and a supermodel girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts), and Albert loathes him for it, not just because he's a reminder of his own insecurities, but also because he thinks Brad is going to screw him. He's right: Brad has engineered a campaign to help Albert's NGO save a bit of forest, but Huckabees is just making this token effort for the PR.

Jude Law, so over-exposed in the cinemas this summer, shows us he's at his best when playing a cad.

It's a classic confrontation between scruffy, leftist idealism, and slick corporate cynicism, but this is just one facet of this tantalizingly multilayered work. Albert resolves to end his confusion by hiring a pair of "existential detectives," Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), to seek out the roots of his troubles. While Vivian spies on Albert as he goes about his daily routines, Bernard coaches him in his worldview. "Everything is the same, everything is connected," insists Bernard, using a blanket (!) to make his point.

The situation becomes more convoluted when Albert meets Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), another client of the Jaffes. Tommy is obsessed with petroleum as the root of all evil, and is just one step short of landing himself in an institution. He introduces Albert to the work of Catherine Vanban (a perfectly cast Isabelle Huppert), a rival of the Jaffes who has embraced the dark side. As her name card tells one and all, she specializes in "Cruelty, Manipulation, Meaninglessness."

What's surprising is how Russell takes philosophy and the quest for meaning and existence and weds it to a zany, often slapstick vein of comedy. Albert's meditations with Bernard lead to hallucinatory passages where he hacks up Brad with a machete, and his poems are painfully poor; on hearing them, you can almost sympathize with Brad. The entire cast are great, with Hoffman, Huppert and Wahlberg displaying the best ability to nail down the humor in the material.

The best jokes come in the broad satire of America's love of any therapy du jour, whether it's Bernard's advice to visualize vacuum cleaners sucking up all one's negativity, or Vauban's technique for learning to be in the moment: smacking yourself in the face with a medicine ball. Poor Tommy is left blathering about how he needs to "go back to the ball so we can feel like a bowl of mold."

The film sets up a battle of conflicting philosophies: either "everything is connected" and "everything matters," as the warm and funky Jaffes teach, or "we're all alone and isolated, and nothing matters," as the cool and sexy nihilism of Vauban has it. Obi-wan and Lord Vader would surely approve. Russell, for his part, builds things up to a point of complete breakdown for his characters before finding a surprisingly neat resolution. Don't miss it!

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