I Heart Huckabee's is my favorite film of the year. It will easily remain my favorite film of the year and I will, no doubt, watch it repeatedly. I've already seen it four times.
Why am I so obsessed with Huckabee's? I'm not entirely sure. I usually re-watch films that place me in a universe I'm both curious about and totally in synch with, serving the dual purpose of granting me escape from the ickiness of real life (I often detest real life, hence, I HEART movies) and putting me in touch with myself or ideas in ways people or books or music cannot. The aesthetic and movement of film works on a completely different level from other art forms. When it makes you forget the popcorn muncher next to you, it's something quite amazing.
But again...Huckabee's? A screwball, "existential" comedy in which the world is argued as either meaningless (cruelty, manipulation and meaninglessness) or interconnected? A high concept farce that so teeters on the edge of chaos it borders on panic attack? What was it that William Hurt said to Sam Jackson in in the obvious but entertaining Changing Lanes? Oh, yes: "You thrive on chaos."
Well, yes and no. For as much as Huckabee's puts me in a dither, it also calms me down, and even makes me insanely happy. For every time I watch the movie, I grow calmer and more in tune with the thing. Repeated viewings deepen the experience and I notice even funnier or more markedly insightful moments. And I like and connect with these characters so much that I want to continually revisit them. Like Wes Anderson's melancholy Tenenbaums (a film I saw eight times in the theater), I just want to hang out at their pink and red house all the time, even if it makes me cry (which it does—yes, laugh it up).
In the case of Huckabee's, I want to watch all the characters' transformations, and laugh and think and be continually impressed by the actor's bravura performances and, yes, enjoy all the Prada clothes. It's a beautiful-looking film and that certainly adds to my enjoyment.
Directed by David O. Russell, a guy who's never made a movie I didn't see more than once (four times for Spanking the Monkey, three for Flirting With Disaster, and three for Three Kings), Huckabee's is, to me, the truly progressive, introspective American film of the year. Much more so than the sledgehammer Farenheit/911.
Though Russell's been called everything from "adolescent" in his philosophical conceits to an "anarchist", he's not that simple. Critics have been told often enough how hard comedy is, but Russell does a lot more than deliver mirth. He maintains order within an extremely hyper context while espousing ideas we can both laugh at and chew on. Plus he shows a deep knowledge of movie craft, enormous intelligence and comic timing that is unsurpassed.
In the tradition of the great slapstick and screwball directors like Preston Sturges or Gregory La Cava (whose My Man Godfrey qualifies as one of the greatest screwballs ever made), Russell throws us into rooms crammed with people of all stripes -- fighting, pushing, socking and manically laughing. And if you don't like screwball, you won't like Huckabee's. But then, if you don't like screwball, you don't like comedy or maybe even movies too much.
Huckabee's begins with beleaguered environmental activist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) whose frustration with the world results in obscenity-laced mutterings he yells at himself but directs at the world ("cocksucker, fuckface babies," or something like that). After sitting on the one rock he saves (and recites his bad poem: "you rock, rock"), we see him run through the maze-like hallways that will lead him to a pair of "existential detectives," Bernard and Vivan Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). Obsessed with the coincidences of continually bumping into a tall Sudanese doorman (Ger Duany), he's convinced there's something vast and meaningful going on. Surely the agony of his life connects and he'd like Bernard and Vivian to sort through his existence to hopefully bring him philosophical (or metaphysical) enlightenment.
Bernard and Vivian appear more Eastern-oriented than existential (remember that the true existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche employed Eastern thought in his writing and was often incredibly positive and inspiring), espousing the firm belief that everyone is the same and interconnected. They believe in the blanket theory, which Bernard, hilariously and sweetly, shows Albert with a real blanket: an orgasm and the Eiffel Tower are one and the same. The detectives are hired to follow Albert's every move as they observe him eat his breakfast cereal from his apartment window and, against his wishes, stop by his work leading to another spoke in his wheel.
Working with the Target-like superstore Huckabee's to aid his cause of "saving the marsh" and specifically, the blond, gorgeous, slickster Brad (Jude Law) who loves nothing more than to tell a Shania Twain mayonnaise story (it shows that he's powerful and charming enough to get the country music mayo-hater to change her mind), Albert is horrified to learn that corporate Brad decides to hire the detectives, too. Brad is trying to take over Albert's organization, turning the environmental cause into a Shania-approved move to impress his higher ups.
Meanwhile, the detectives are working with poignant firefighter Tommy (an inspired, brilliant Mark Wahlberg), the picture's heart and soul, who, following September 11, hires the detectives to guide him through the horrors of the world. Seeing the catastrophe first-hand, an entire universe of evil opens up, from his favorite cause, the abuse of petroleum, to the existence of child labor, to the environmental ruin of urban expanse. If Albert cuts a Sisyphean image, then Tommy is a somewhat sweeter verson of Ernest Everhard in the Jack London's The Iron Heel.
"The cloth bulged with his muscles... His neck was the neck of a prize-fighter, thick and strong," London wrote. "So this was the social philosopher and ex-horseshoe my father had discovered, was my thought. And he certainly looked it with those bulging muscles and that bull-throat. Immediately I classified him -- a sort of prodigy, I thought, a Blind Tom of the working class."
Tommy, a self-educated prole, has become so incensed by the hypocrisy of others and so desires change that he barely censors his words and actions (in The Iron Heel Everhard has no problem telling a table of the upper class: "Your sociology is as vicious and worthless as is your method of thinking"). He's not against violence either. He's also curious about other methods. And yet working with the detectives for three years has not offered much improvement. Tommy is as depressed and angry as ever.
Dipping into outside sources, Tommy embraces sexy, French-renegade nihilist Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), the author of If Not Now, a book that says the key to surviving life is to surrender to its meaningless. Her card reads "Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness" and while Albert, who also falls under her spell, torches in the name of personal gestalt, she chants "creation, destruction, creation, destruction" with a near-sexual zeal.
But dear Lord... how am I explaining this movie? It's tough to adequately describe its force and presence without giving away endings and becoming overly entwined in its quagmire.
I will continue with this: Brad's girlfriend Dawn, the perfect, blonde face of Huckabee's, also turns to Bernard and Vivian resulting in an enlightenment of beauty; she wants to look less gorgeous and so wears baggy overalls and the symbol of herself: a bonnet. And Brad's mayonnaise story? I'll just say that it leads to another philosophical nod: Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea when Brad, who becomes incredibly sympathetic and troubled, literally vomits in his own hands.
So why is Huckabee's so simultaneously trippy and appealing?
For one, its dueling philosophies (which some critics decry as pretentious and adolescent) are made fun of and made significant to any thinking person living in the malaise of everyday corporate-ized culture. Just as Fight Club fed into and attacked such ideas while satirizing self-help and the extremity of urban terrorism, Huckabee's hilariously satirizes radical self-help while understanding the desire to seek such "therapy." The world is a shitty place, but it has the potential for great beauty.
A virtuoso scene has Albert and Tommy eating at the Christian, adoptive family of the Sudanese doorman, who turns out to be a refugee the family took in. The layers of racism, dogma and insensitivity presented in this laugh-out-loud scene is pure genius. When the mindless daughter of the family proclaims that Jesus is never mad at us, Tommy barks back with "I've got news for you. He most definitely is."
Secondly, it's pure comedic brilliance. Every actor is up to the challenge and succeeds beyond our expectations. Keeping the balance within a crowded frame of fractured, fighting characters is not an easy task; it requires choreography and perfected mark-hitting and snap-your-fingers timing that most directors would run away from in terror. Russell jumps in feet first and gives his actors the ability to deliver some of the greatest work of their careers. I've never seen Law or Watts this funny and Wahlberg (whom I've always defended, from his splash in the teen picture Fear to the messy Planet of the Apes) is so goddamn impressive that if the Academy had any balls or brains, he would win for Best Supporting Actor.
I could go on and on and on but you'd be reading this column in spools if I did. All I can say is that I'm obsessed with Huckabee's, even to the point of excitedly sitting through the credits for the film's last line (spoken in an especially profound moment by Law) writ large: "How am I not myself?"
The more you watch, the more that question becomes layered and truly scary. Nevertheless, I will return. And if I see the movie more than ten times, I may never come back.