I ♥ Huckabees (2004)

This review was originally published at ChristianityTodayMovies.com.

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I ♥ Huckabees is “all about what it’s all about.” At least, that’s what the studio’s summary of David O. Russell’s fourth film boasts. If that means that the movie asks, “What’s it all about?”… they’re correct. We haven’t seen a movie so intent on uncovering the meaning of life since Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. But anybody who claims Huckabees delivers a satisfactory definition of life’s meaning is sorely mistaken.

Although widely varied in style, Russell’s films explore what unites humankind and what draws people out of their narrow-minded boxes. In Flirting with Disaster, Ben Stiller plays a desperate man searching for the family that gave him up for adoption. Over and over, he “finds” his family and begins bonding, only to find out there’s been a mistake, and he has to tear himself away. It’s all played for laughs, but on a deeper level the film is about how interconnected we are, even with total strangers. Although Russell’s war film Three Kings was much more serious, it too was about human unity; U.S. soldiers in the Gulf War came to realize that the struggle was not as clear cut as they’d assumed, and through a terrifying hostage crisis they came to sympathize more deeply with the people whose territory they occupied.

The hero of I ♥ Huckabees is not trying to find a family; he’s trying to find a satisfying worldview. And while his relational barrier is not an international divide, he does learn how much he has in common with his enemy, a corporate executive with a mean streak.

Albert Markovski (Rushmore‘s Jason Schwartzman) is a defender of “open spaces,” an environmentalist, and a poet. But for a guy who’s passionate about poetry and a clean environment, he sure has a filthy mouth! He vents his outrage in an R-rated stream of profanity, protesting disorder in the world and in his own life, much the way Nicolas Cage did in the opening moments of Adaptation.

Albert has good reason to be upset. He signed a contract with a superstore chain called Huckabees in order to gain the resources necessary to save a local marsh. But while Huckabees promotes Albert’s Open Spaces Coalition with the help of pop star Shania Twain, they’re cleverly subverting Albert’s leadership of the campaign, replacing poetry with empty razzle-dazzle. Raging against the machine, Albert tries to prevent his supporters from being seduced by Huckabees’ charming, materialistic, malevolent figurehead, Brad Stand (Jude Law).

But Albert’s angst runs deeper than mere disillusionment with corporations. Mysterious coincidences have led him to question the purpose of his life. So he seeks helps from “existential detectives” to help him learn whether or not his efforts really matter. Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin wearing a tight suit, Dustin Hoffman sporting a haircut that makes him look like the fifth Beatle) promise Albert that their investigation will be a “painful process” that could “dismantle” his whole experience.

The detectives begin to spy on Albert’s every move. The answers they uncover are, in essence, more powerful questions that lead Albert farther into psychobabble than he really wants to go. “Have you ever transcended space and time?” Vivian asks him. Bernard tries to explain the interconnectedness of everything by turning a blanket into a metaphor, and then he zips Albert into a body bag for some quiet time. Soon, Albert’s so confused about the meaning of life—or whether there actually is such a thing—that he can hardly ride his environmentally correct bicycle. Worse, the Jaffes argue that Albert and his nemesis, Brad, have quite a bit in common.

As part of the Jaffes’ experiment, Albert is assigned to spend time with his “other,” an inquisitive searcher who faces a similar struggle. Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) is a firefighter who, after losing some colleagues in “that September thing,” became so obsessed with tough philosophical questions that his wife took the kids and abandoned him. United by their hatred for corporate greed, their rage over petroleum dependence, and their frustration with the Jaffes’ dissatisfying counsel, Albert and Tommy decide to team up with the Jaffes’ philosophical opposite, a nihilistic French philosopher named Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).

Meanwhile, Brad hires the Jaffes for his own wicked purposes. But instead of getting the upper hand in the battle with Albert, he and his girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts)—Huckabees’ Barbie-like spokesmodel—plunge into identity crises of their own. Brad proves unable to endure the psychological surgery that exposes the ugliness beneath his picture-perfect public image. And Dawn learns that, just as she can perform sexy contortions on Huckabees commercials, she’s quite bendy when it comes to her worldview as well.

It’s hard to imagine that a storyteller could maintain such a surreal, overcrowded, and philosophical narrative without losing the audience. But Russell directs with the ambition of Robert Altman (Short Cuts) and the nervous energy of Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love), and his script sounds like it was co-written by Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday) and Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and adapted from a book by Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a highly entertaining accomplishment, even if it never arrives at a satisfactory resolution.

While it’s not Russell’s best film—that would be Three Kings—it’s certainly a memorably zany foray into uncharted cinematic territory. It’s more mind-bending than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and more aggressively soul-searching than Dogville. It benefits from another inventive soundtrack by Jon Brion and can boast of the biggest all-star cast this year.

The actors clearly relish the opportunity to play such manic loonies. Jude Law gives his most interesting performance since Gattaca, creating a convincingly wicked and worldly egomaniac who delights in climbing the corporate ladder; when he falls, he’s persuasively distraught. Naomi Watts is pitch-perfect as a ditzy blonde who discovers there’s more to life than glamour. Isabelle Huppert, audacious as ever, plays a comical variation on the sick and twisted characters she’s played in subversive films like La Ceremonie and The Piano Teacher—here, she even gets a chance to fearlessly wallow in the mud like a pig. Hoffman and Tomlin are a surprisingly wacky match, and Jason Schwartzman mirrors our own bewilderment at all that transpires.

The biggest surprise is Mark Wahlberg’s performance; he makes Tommy stand out as the most human and affecting of the bunch. Thus it’s even more distressing when the film portrays Tommy as discovering fulfillment and happiness in a way that quietly excuses him of all responsibility for his earlier failure as a father and a husband.

And that’s what makes Russell’s film inferior to Paul Thomas Anderson’s morality plays (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). Anderson gives us characters who suffer the consequences of reckless self-gratification, learn humility, and reach out for help, whereas Russell’s Huckabees crowd comes close to justifying destructive behavior in the name of independent intellectual adventures. Anderson’s films are about fools finding wisdom and grace, where Huckabees is just about finding a tenuous happiness.

While Albert, Tommy, Brad, and the gang are all portrayed as comical fools who have a lot to learn, the film’s gravest error is that it holds up Christians as the biggest idiots of all. Instead of considering Christian faith, Russell instead presents us with a naïve and narrow-minded religious family who claim that Christianity condemns curiosity, and who look at Albert’s passion for the environment as ridiculous. Christian viewers should not be too offended by such a cruel caricature, as there are indeed many believers who use Christianity as an excuse to avoid intellectual endeavor, whereas Christ tells us that “He who seeks finds.” But Huckabees resurrects a wearying question: Why are so many films that wave the flag of “tolerance” so unforgivingly cruel and intolerant to Christians?

If poor Albert, proud Brad, and despairing Tommy were to consider even the basics of true Christianity, they might discover that God welcomes intellectual investigation, that he exhorts us to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” They might discover that God charged humankind with subduing and replenishing the earth. They might be impressed with the psalms of David, who drew so much inspiration from attending to the natural world, and the trials of Solomon and Job, whose intellectual conundrums led to reconciliation with God.

Furthermore, many of Christ’s own teachings are echoed in the discoveries made by Albert and Brad. Christ taught we should put aside the false dichotomies we use to elevate ourselves over others. Scripture instructs us to care for our enemies and to realize that we are all connected—united in our brokenness and by the fact that we have eternity written in our hearts. Furthermore, Christ compels us to attend to our own blind spots before we criticize others for their shortcomings. All of these ideas are illustrated in I ♥ Huckabees, but without any acknowledgment of the source of such wisdom.

Still, it is encouraging to see that Tommy and Albert are not content to settle for Eastern assurances that “everything is connected.” Nor are they satisfied with nihilism and reckless self-gratification. They end up suspecting that life has meaning after all … even if they never figure out what it is. The danger in their approach is that it excuses misbehaviors as merely a necessary phase of the intellectual journey. The end credits might as well be playing to that Clinton-era theme song “Go Your Own Way.” It’s the same “lesson” that poisons so many American films, the one that says happiness is achieved by being true to one’s own heart. If human hearts were perfect and trustworthy, then being true to them would be a fine idea. But our hearts and minds are flawed, and when we make our personal happiness the goal, what we achieve is fragile, temporary, and inferior to the joy that can be found in seeking to serve the One who designed us and who knows what is best.

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