In Which The Universe is a Blanket
There is a story about David O. Russell, when he was making Three Kings, that I think is pertinent to today’s article. No it’s not the one where he’s punched by George Clooney on set for being an ass, but it has a similar energy. While working on the movie Russell was in the office of some studio exec when then governor of Texas George W. Bush stepped in to talk about the movie business. Russell, being the pompous man that he was snidely remarked that he was making a movie about the Gulf War, and taunted the future president about his legacy. I don’t know if Russell ever rued speaking those words in the event of Bush’s election, but the needling of the man is an impulse that fully informs his 2004 I Heart Huckabees.
I’ve mentioned before in these pieces that a lot of the movies from the era, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the first year or so of the Iraq war, had no idea how to contend with the contemporary political climate. There was a lot of sentiment that things were bad, but a hesitancy on actually articulating those sentiments. It’s easy to forget, but at the time Bush was popular, and the boondoggles that would follow wouldn’t really sink him to late in his second term. So in culture you get a ton of pieces of art that poke around the political issues of the moment. Stories finding a back road to make their points about the times we live in.
I Heart Huckabees is a prime example of that. On the surface it’s mostly a farce about one man’s existential crisis in how it relates to a giant box store, but barely an inch beneath that is a seething comedy about the culture wars of the era. No political figure is explicitly mentioned, and 9/11 only gets a glancing remark, but this is a film of deep political angst. Of raging against a country that seems totally unconcerned with problems at hand, and that would sell out its own future for the sake of simple convenience and the ability to appear to cooler and more connected than other individuals. Even if this is a project that (barely) subsumes it’s political knives, it feels like the first real attack on the powers that be so far in this series.
So here we have Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) who is in a bit of tricky situation. His local Open Spaces coalition is leaving him in the dust after being pushed aside by Brad Stand (Jude Law), a smarmy middle manager for the Walmart-esque Huckabees store. Albert wants to save the marsh land and forest, and doesn’t believe Brad will do it, and as he’s breaking down he decides to hire “Existential Detectives” Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to help crack his case. Along the way he stumbles upon seductive nihilist Caterine (Isabelle Huppert) whose philosophy has swayed disillusioned firefighter Tommy (Mark Wahlberg).
If that’s a lot to keep track it feels like an intentional spin from Russell. Huckabees is dizzying in the amount of characters and concepts that it throws at the viewer. All backed up by a hyperactive and skittering style that ranges between performative shouting matches and cubist montages deconstructing people’s bodies. It’s all a little much, a continued series of slaps (or perhaps red rubber balls) to the face. Never allowing for a second of respite even during cathartic revelations. No Huckabees is insistent, a nattering experience where every moment is blown out to the highest possible degree.
What’s interesting is that this specific affectation that Russell leans on is countered by a considered visual aesthetic that is pointedly bland and hollow. Yes there are wild images present in the film (notably Jude Law breast feeding Schwartzman), but outside of a particularly fanciful segments this is a world of sterility. A landscape of suburban sprawl, strip malls, and corporate offices. Where finding the existential detectives involves curling around the corners of seemingly endless blah hallways. Even the beloved wetlands that Albert has dedicated his life to saving looks like a substandard public park. These two polarities, the hyped up aggro nature of how people act, and the the beige sterility of natural life, eventually do create an equilibrium that that does in fact live up to the title of this series.
Because in 2004, if you were of a certain political persuasion, you could believe that the world has gone mad. That the masses of the public would be more easily swayed by a smooth operator promising the appearance of Shania Twain than an earnest environmentalist who might be right, but is incredibly annoying. That the whole political system was orchestrated for people to have existential breakdowns in big box parking lots, and people would happily sell their souls for the possibility of another all-in-one store.
It’s this sputtering existential dread that drives the plot of Huckabees, but it also helps Russell allow to get his political barbs in. Of course there’s the obvious jokes to made about Huckabees itself. An obvious Walmart riff that pulls it’s name from the smarmy exterior of Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (not a coincidence given that Walmart is based in Arkansas). A company concerned with paternalistic moralizing to shape up its image while also always going behind your back.
But there’s other clever and pointed segments as well. Take Wahlberg’s character. A fireman who detests the use of petroleum and its affect on the world. Though never directly stated you can track down his current despair to the 9/11 attacks (which the film only refers to as the “big September thing”), and his angst at people calling him a hero when there are bigger problems causing destruction in the world. There’s a pretty clear dig here on how the country reacted to 9/11 first responders, but it’s also a fairly clever meta-joke on Wahlberg’s personality. Here’s a man who said that he could have single handedly stopped the planes from reaching the World Trade Center, and in Huckabees he’s a man reduced and cowed by the experience. Wahlberg still has a chip on his shoulder (as he does in many of his best performances), but it’s aimed in an amusing direction. For environmentalism and justice. It’s a joke on a joke when he gets in an argument with a Christian family about how using oil is against the teachings of Christ, in real life Wahlberg would be defending such views.
Huckabees is also smart in making the ideological components of characters stickier than the usual comedy of this ilk. Yes both Albert and Tommy come to some sort sense of peace by the end of the picture, but it’s not one of complete compromise or resignation. Brad gets a kind of revelation about his soul sucking personality, but one that won’t stop the bulldozers from tearing down a forest to make more room for more big box stores. These people’s lives have changed, but that doesn’t mean that the circumstances they find themselves in is automatically better.
And this resolution is what makes this project, even with the more coded political bent, feel more attuned to the time than movies that tackled current events more literally. Yes there’s a struggle, sometimes with a messy an uncertain resolution, but one actually needs to work through it directly to actually make progress on becoming whole and understand of one’s self. So while Huckabees might be chaotic and frustrating, it does tap into the deep anger and rage with surprising aplomb.
Odds and Ends
- There’s so many people in the cast that I barely had time to mention Naomi Watts, the bubbly spokeswoman for Huckabees who utters the phrase Fuckabees to the delight of all.
- Also populating the edges of the cast: Tippi Hedren, Jean Smart, Richard Jenkins, Johah Hill, and of course Shania Twain as herself.
- One of the reason this movie has a stink on it and is largely lost to the winds of culture is the absolutely horrendous way that Russell treated his cast on set. There’s a real frustrating video where he berates Tomlin for seemingly no reason, and I totally get writing him off because of it. But I can’t deny that I still really like this movie, and even think Tomlin gives a great performance.
- Also interesting is that this is the only film Russell released in the 00’s. There was another project that got shelved for nearly a decade, but it was this, and then suddenly Oscar gold for three straight movies. Weird trajectory.
- Jude Law was in six movies in 2004: this, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Alfie, Closer, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Aviator.
Next Week: The Rock busts loose in 2006’s bewildering Southland Tales.