Two ladies of a certain age sitting behind me gasped during the opening sequence. The young hero Adam Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) first appears on screen walking toward the camera as his voice-over explains in spectacularly scabrous terms his bewilderment with the universe. Those of us who deal on a daily basis with student filmmakers and the undergraduate vocabulary have come to such words colder, by-and-by. We no longer gasp, but the antennae do go up, and the word that springs to mind is “sophomoric.” Keep in mind, however: even sophomores can have some redeeming qualities.
I ♥ Huckabees gives voice to the post-adolescent angst in dealing with the outside world. Adam has risen through the ranks and now heads the Open Spaces Coalition, whose immediate project involves stopping Huckabees, a Wal-Mart type colossus of retail sales, from gobbling up still one more forest and marshland for yet another outlet. Good for Adam. But with his shoulder-length greasy hair, equally greasy tweed jacket and week’s growth of beard, he has kept the look of one of those perennial graduate students who are so far removed from reality that even the spaciest student filmmakers recognize them as fair game. Adam believes he can save the world and the neighborhood swamp by reciting his manifestly horrible poems to captive audiences. The coalition has grown skeptical of his methods, and the national office has put him under review. Little to worry about, though. The meetings always disintegrate into shouting matches between various factions before they can take any action on anything. Like many such groups, they have never been able to put the coalesce into coalition.
The power struggle takes on a sinister—perhaps paranoid is a better term—character when Adam discovers that one of his fellow coalescers, the slick and charming Brad Stand (Jude Law), a public-relations officer for Huckabees, has been less than sincere in working with the jolly tree-huggers. He pretends to be interested in forging an agreement that will both improve his employer’s negative image as well as preserve the community’s green space. In reality, he is using the movement to accelerate his own rising star in the corporate constellation. Like an undergraduate on his first summer internship, Adam comes to the startling realization that some people in the business world are not nice.
The director, David O. Russell, and his co-writer, Jeff Baena, boost this conventional satiric conflict into a higher orbit by introducing a most unconventional co-plot, which becomes far more interesting than the eco-war of the worlds. Adam, it seems, has run into a tall African on three separate occasions. Surely, in the grand scheme of the universe the coincidence must have a meaning. Tormented by this mystery of being, he searches through the labyrinthine corridors of a sterile office building to the lair of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), who bill themselves as “existential detectives.” Vivian is delightfully loopy as a female version of a hardboiled detective with the demeanor of the sultry femme noire, a mixture of Bogie and Stanwyck, if you can imagine that. Bernard wears his hair in a Beatle-do and inhabits the chalk-covered suit of a night-school professor of psychology, although he chafes at any suggestion that he is a therapist. They agree to take the case, but they warn Adam that they will record his every move in order to discover meaning in his life.
Like student filmmakers who have rebelled against the lunacy of their required course in the Introduction to Philosophy, with its promise of the grand synthesis, Russell and Baena reduce their one-semester quest for intelligibility to a well-deserved absurdity of comic detectives revealing the mysteries of the universe. Bernard raises imaginary objects under a blanket to prove that all being is one; everything is composed of atoms shot from the sun. At one point, Russell’s camera allows Bernard’s face to disintegrate and mingle with Adam’s to demonstrate the point. His explanation of the “one and the many” makes as much sense as most others, attempted without the lumpy blanket. Vivian carefully observes Adam brushing his teeth, since his slightest action could hold the key to unlock the mystery.
The metaphysical stew thickens when Caterine Vaubon (Isabel Huppert), a French (naturally) nihilist, stalks Adam to save him from a naïve conclusion about anything having meaning. She establishes the random nature of the universe by indulging the hormonal imperative with Adam in his muddy swampland. She admits to being a sworn enemy of the Jaffes, since French philosophers always define themselves, we are told, by their contempt of their intellectual adversaries.
Understandably, Adam finds himself stranded on marshy land somewhere between Thomas Aquinas and Michel Foucault. He is sinking fast. One other alternative lies open. He tracks his mysterious African (Ger Duany), and finds that he has been saved from starvation in the Sudan and adopted by a born-again family, whose fervor is matched only by its certitudes about the free-enterprise system and the right of Americans to consume as much of the world’s resources as they want. If this is what faith leads to, Adam wants no part of it.
Again, like good sophomores, Russell and Baena are equal-opportunity cynics. Of course they reach no conclusions, philosophical or ecological. They deal in farce and satire. The humor often lacks focus, and the point of their barbs is as obvious as a blemish on the nose of a prom queen. Like a lot of student satire, it’s like shooting whales in a thimble: ecology, new-age self-improvement, philosophy, therapy, corporate greed. The script is incoherent, unfocussed and is intended merely to provide some vague chain of plausibility to lead from one character sketch and comic situation to the next. The characters don’t interact with one another; they merely appear on the screen.
Now, in this season when flip-flop has become the leading cliché of the new millennium, I have to admit that “I ♥ Huckabees” also has some of the endearing qualities of a student film. (Russell, it must be noted, is not actually a student film-maker. His “Three Kings,” a Persian Gulf war story with George Clooney, was both a critical and commercial success.) It has a fresh originality about it. Russell tries to break patterns by mixing fantasy, satire, romance and politics, and at times it works. When so many studio products follow the safe predictable formulas, it’s refreshing to see a film that takes chances, some of which actually work.
The loose-jointed, nonlinear script provides a playground for a wonderful assortment of characters, many of whom have very funny scenes, even if they don’t quite fit in to any whole. Lily Tomlin creates a character worthy to join her repertoire of endearing eccentrics. Dustin Hoffman’s Bernard Jaffe is a befuddled academic, earnest in his beliefs, even if the Reagan Revolution rendered him outdated several decades ago. Hold a save-the-(fill-in-the-blank) rally, and his type shows up in droves. Naomi Watts reveals a surprising (to me) flare for comedy as Dawn, the voice (and well-displayed body) of Huckabees commercials. Tired of being exploited for the corporate image, she gets religion of a new-age variety, dresses in baggy overalls and a wilted sunbonnet, and refuses to continue her role as the Martha Stewart of swimsuits. Brad describes her as an Amish bag-lady. Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) becomes a blue-collar compadre of Adam. As a firefighter, he always wears his full-length boots, but he is also a petro-freak, who rides his bicycle to fires rather than use the gas-guzzling fire truck. Because of the traffic around Los Angeles, he often arrives first.
When all the smoke settles, Huckabees wins. Forest and wetland don’t have a chance. The corporations always win. Don’t you just ♥ a winner?