...while it is little more than a lightweight charade masquerading as deep wisdom, there were parts of it I enjoyed.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The tag line for the 2004 release "I Heart Huckabees" is "an existential comedy." I'm not entirely sure what that's supposed to mean, except that all of us are trying to find some kind of meaning in life and so are the characters in this movie. Maybe it implies that our whole existence is a kind of comedy, like Saroyan's "The Human Comedy," although Saroyan's version was in a more critical vein. I rather suspect "I Heart Huckabees" is meant to be as silly-goofy as possible, and in that regard it succeeds. If only the silly goofiness were as funny as it is hyperactive, and if only the film didn't take itself so seriously.

As a send-up of the modern world's pop-culture quest for meaning at its simplest, the movie's title spoofs the little icons we all so enjoy relying on, the "Heart" in "I Heart Huckabees" being the symbol for a heart (as in "I Love Huckabees"), a mark that most newspapers, magazines, and Web sites can't easily reproduce. The title is like a personalized license plate; you know, for people who think they have something important to say, whether it's important or not. Or maybe the title is just a parody of our own bent for self-promotion. Or maybe it's not satirizing anything at all and is just meant to be self-consciously cute. Like most of the film, the title is open to interpretation, amusing if not particularly profound.

The film stars some icons of its own, new and old. Some of the newer ones are Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, and the fellow that Oscar emcee Chris Rock said was in every movie made in 2004, Jude Law. But it's the longer-established stars who shine the brightest: Talia Shire, Tippi Hedren, the always radiant Isabelle Huppert, and the delightfully oddball Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman. It's great to see these folks as often as we do; Hoffman, especially, is as chameleonlike as ever, playing in the same year an off-kilter dad in "Meet the Folkers," a straightlaced theater impresario in "Finding Neverland," an uncredited film critic in "Lemony Snicket," and here as one of a pair of "existential detectives."

So, what are "existential detectives"? Well, according to co-writer and director David O. Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster," "Three Kings"), they are private investigators who try to sort through and make sense of the seemingly random events that happen to all of us. They are spiritual gurus who insist that all the events in our lives are not random; that coincidences are not just coincidences; that we can control our own destinies because all things are meant to happen for a purpose. Hoffman and Tomlin play a husband-and-wife detective team, Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, who, once on a case, follow their clients everywhere, right into the bathroom if necessary, collecting data and helping them find some personal meaning in their existence. Moreover, these detectives may be real or illusory, metaphoric. The movie outlines a lot of humankind's problems, though it's pretty vague on cures.

Anyway, their theory is that everything in life has meaning because everything is connected.

Through the course of the film, the detectives help four people: (1) Albert Markovski (Schwartzman), an environmental activist who feels guilty going into partnership with a sales executive at Huckabees, a big retail department-store chain; (2) Brad Stand (Law), said executive; (3) Dawn Campbell (Watts), Brad's girlfriend; and (4) Tommy Corn (Wahlberg), a firefighter. All of these people have serious identity problems, serious conflicts within themselves that need resolving. Bernard and Vivian attempt to teach them to get in touch with their inner selves and see the bigger picture in life, rather than live on the surface of things. Bernard tries to show Albert that eternal happiness is derived from knowing that "everything in life you could ever want or be, you already have and are." In other words, we're all a part of each other, part of the bigger whole, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we will come to peace within ourselves. Sounds a little New Age spacey, doesn't it. In fact, it's one of the oldest tenets of Eastern philosophy.

Isabelle Huppert plays Caterine Vauban, a French author who is the other, darker side of Bernard and Vivian. She is the apparent archfiend, a beautiful woman who espouses the philosophy that nothing matters. She is a nihilist, suggesting to the characters that they should deny all real existence because in the end none it of counts, anyway. Do what you want to do, she advises; things will turn out the same in any case. The Jaffes and she vie for the other characters' souls, like God and Satan, if you will.

The Huckabees conglomerate wants to turn a local wetland and woods into a shopping mall. Albert is the head of a Save-the-Earth coalition out to stop it from happening. Albert hopes that Brad can help him convince the department store not go through with its plans. But Brad just wants to get ahead in the business world. Can he be trusted? Albert feels morally conflicted working with a snake. Dawn is a model who is the "face of Huckabees," but she's tired of being just another pretty, sexy facade. And Tommy the fireman is an angry tough guy in need of some violence-prevention therapy, because his answer to life's problems is to lash out at them with his fists. They are all looking for something more uplifting in life, and they all call upon the existential detectives for help in one way or another.

At its core, "I Heart Huckabees" is a fable of the modern world, with everything seemingly disconnected and the forces of darkness and light pulling us in different directions. Although the movie is silly and whimsical, it's clearly sincere in its attempts to deal with life's problems, perhaps too sincere, however, to be anything but sporadically funny.

We're all grabbing at things to make order of our lives, things like religion, politics, philosophy, literature, hobbies, sports, sex, cars, movies, what have you. The story takes its shots at all of them, and while the results may seem at times more than a trifle chaotic, most of it remains in fun. If the movie makes you think a mite while it makes you smile, then all the better. But for all its lighthearted tomfoolery, it does, as I say, tend to take itself a tad too seriously, so don't expect any big belly-laughs. They come few and far between. When it was over, I had one of those "Is that all there is?" feelings.

The movie is presented in two different formats on flip sides of disc one, pan-and-scan and widescreen. The P&S is a true butchering of the theatrical aspect ratio, cutting out more than 40% of the image left and right. The widescreen, which is what I watched, measures a ratio approximately 2.31:1 across my standard-screen Sony HD television, the image further enhanced (anamorphic) for 16x9 TVs. The bit rate is not very high for a Fox transfer, however, so the image is not entirely as sharp or crisp nor the colors as deep as on many of the studio's other releases. The slightly soft, blurry focus may be entirely for effect, however, as it tends to mirror the out-of-focus lives of the characters in the story. At least, that could be used as one rationalization for the movie's appearance. Colors are generally bright, though, and grain is a nonissue.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound does what it's called upon to do and little more. Obviously, it is not called upon to do very much, as this film is almost entirely dialogue driven. There are very few loud sounds of any kind, let alone surround sounds. Musical ambiance reinforcement is lightly encouraged through the rear speakers, and the occasional voice can be heard to the far left or right of the front speakers. The audio reproduction is clean and clear, if a tad hard and bright.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between the regular edition of this movie and the Special Edition two-disc set is the addition of the second disc. In other words, disc one of the Special Edition appears to be identical to disc one of the regular edition. It contains the standard and widescreen versions of the movie; twenty-four scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles. In addition, you get two audio commentaries, the first by director David O. Russell alone, and the second also by the director, this time aided by stars Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts, the latter three actors coming in at various times. Russell is a soft-spoken guy who obviously takes all of this existential business very seriously and wants earnestly to share it with viewers of his movie. In both commentaries the director explains what he was trying to get at with the symbolism of the story. Needless to say, the actors provide their own takes on the film's meaning when they get their chance as well.

Disc two is what you pay your money for in the Special Edition. It begins with a thirty-four minute production documentary, wherein the actors and filmmakers further discuss the meaning of the film for each of them personally. It is not typically self-promotional as so many documentaries are; it is more revealing of the filmmakers involved. Following that is a thirty-one minute "Charlie Rose Show" interview with Russell and others. Then, there are twenty-two deleted or extended scenes, fifty-one minutes worth in non-anamorphic widescreen, some of them looking more like outtakes than merely finished but discarded scenes. Three minutes of actual outtakes come next, after which are four more minutes of sundry, goofy screwups called "Miscellaneous Things People Did."

Then there is a multitude of short featurettes on production design, costume design, music with composer Jon Brion, a photo montage, simulated public-service announcements and commercials, and several segments from twenty-eight to thirty-four minutes in length on an existential detective infomercial that features real professors of physics and religion discussing quantum mechanics and string theory. There was probably even more stuff I missed, but it was getting late, I had spent the better part of a day with the disc, and I was starting to fade. The two discs give you your money's worth of film and bonuses in terms of quantity, but the material tends to get repetitious fast.

Parting Thoughts:
It isn't often that you find a comedy (or any film, for that matter) that raises questions about our very existence: How do we achieve happiness? Why are we here, where did we come from, and where are we going if this is all there is? Can we have the light without the dark, the good without the bad?

"I Heart Huckabees" is a kind of experiential, Zen-like, Joseph Campbell, "Star Wars," "Paradise Lost" comedy, with its characters wandering through life's maze, searching for meaning. If this seems heavy or preachy, I assure you it isn't. It's mostly playful and lively. The movie doesn't contain the solutions to life's mysteries, nor is it always very funny; but while it is little more than a lightweight charade masquerading as deep wisdom, there were parts of it I enjoyed.


Film Value