So, what’s it all about? That’s the question that writer-director David O Russell asks of himself and his audience in I Heart Huckabees, his fourth feature-length film. It boasts a stellar cast – from Dustin Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg to Jude Law and Naomi Watts – and in David O Russell a director celebrated for intelligent cult hits Three Kings and Spanking the Monkey.
Jason Schwartzman plays Albert Markovski, an environmental crusader confused by a series of coincidences, seeks out the help of two existential detectives, a pair of married metaphysicians (Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) who investigate the mysteries at the core of their clients innermost lives.
They uncover his festering conflict with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a golden boy executive climbing the corporate ladder of Walmart-like retail store Huckabees, who then hires the pair himself. But that ultimately leads to problems between Brad and his girlfriend, the Huckabees spokesmodel, Dawn (Naomi Watts).
Along the way there’s a friendship formed between Markovski and another client, the soul searching firefighter Tommy (Walhberg), and the appearance of the existential detectives’ arch enemy, sexy French philosopher Caterine (Isabelle Huppert), a nihilist.
Thus, we have corporate pretty-boy Stand pitted against the geeky greenie Schwartzman, competing extremist philosophies and philosophers, friendship versus relationships, fiction against reality and deep versus shallow. Meticulous attention has been paid to the colour and feel of the film, and there’s an agreeable retro soundtrack throughout. All with a constant slapstick element to it: at times funny, but nonetheless distracting.
Yet the problem with I Heart Huckabees is ultimately that it doesn’t know whether it’s an intellectual art-house flick or a screwball everyman comedy, and it therefore fails to impress on either count.
Hence we have a film devoted to musing about existentialism and nihilism, revelling in capitalism and consumerism-driven angst, but playing for laughs with in-the-mud sex scenes and comic capers across a cartoonish corporate backscreen.
This, apparently, is a film from a David O Russell idea that germinated a decade ago. It’s ambitious in wanting to engage audiences’ hearts and minds, and should be applauded as such. And, despite never fulfilling its premise, it does entertain. However, a poignantly sensitive Walberg performance aside, it’s a disappointment. In trying to be all things to all people I Heart Huckabees fails to find its feet: neither as cleverly enchanting as The Royal Tenenbaums nor as side-splittingly funny as the simplistic Zoolander.
I expect David O Russell believes he’s made a love it or hate it flick – for me it’s more a take it or leave it affair.