“What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m doing the best that I can. I know that’s all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn’t than nothing in this world makes any sense to me; I’m fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit. Just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker. Fuck. Shit.”
This, the opening inner monologue to David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, belongs to Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a young eco-warrior going through an existential crisis. We hear this angry, self-doubting rant as he walks up to his latest “victory,” saving a solitary rock on land that’s going to be developed. He’s a poet and gives a short reading of his latest ode to the rock he saves. But he can’t stick around: he has a coincidence to figure out and an appointment with two existential detectives to keep. His co-workers are confounded about what he’s talking about (and so are we), but before any further questions can be asked he’s walking down a long, winding hallway, just a few steps behind a man who looks just like him from behind, as the opening credits roll under Jon Brion’s whimsical musical score.
With this unexplained and inexplicable beginning, I Heart Huckabees–one of the most unique comedies ever made–starts. This film came out when I was in college, and when I saw it, I laughed so much I couldn’t wait to watch it again. On the second viewing, I thought a little more about the overall film and wondered what it was about it that struck me so much. On the third viewing I finally got it: I was watching a movie about me. And about you. And about all of us who are still unsure and trying to negotiate their place in the 21st century, in the larger scheme of things, in America, and in life in general. It’s a movie about just how silly everyone really is once you drop any pretense and look at who they are at their essence–and conversely, how silly the artifice of our civilization, our personas, and almost everything is when you peel back the veneer that we all collectively agree upon to honor in order to have order and meaning in our world.
This seems to be the major thrust of the film as Albert subjects himself to a duo of self-styled existential detectives: Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), who he goes to uncover the potential meaning of a series of coincidental meetings between Albert and said “African guy” mentioned in the opening monologue. But their involvement in his life–which includes constant surveillance of his life as well as addressing the larger metaphysical and existential meanings of life–soon leads to his life unraveling, particularly when his rival/former ally corporate manager Brad Stand (Jude Law) and his model girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts) also engage the services of Jaffe & Jaffe.
When Albert pairs up with an “other” to help him through his crisis–fireman Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) who’s having a breakdown over environmental issues, which leads him to nihilist philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) that used to be an associate with the Jaffes–and Dawn has her own epiphany, things spiral wonderfully out of control.
The plot is driven by nothing more than a group of people seeking enlightenment, or at least some inner peace, and this simple desire turns out to be the catalyst for one of the funniest, most human comedies I’ve ever watched. Now with the barest of plot and purpose outlined, let’s take a closer look at what makes I Heart Huckabees a perfect movie.
I ♥ Huckabees – A Perfect Movie
“How am I not myself?”
This question is uttered at one point by corporate executive for the titular Huckabees (a sort of Target-esque omnistore) Brad Stand–played to handsome, bland perfection by Jude Law–and it is then echoed back to him by Jaffe & Jaffe, which he then repeats, and they repeat again, first to him, and then to each other. He leaves, and they continue this question. And it’s a good question: it’s ultimately the question that everyone in the film is asking. And they all find their answer: maybe not the one they want, but the one that’s the truth. This is one of the tricky tone that the film sets: making a movie where the plot is driven by people who are internally driving themselves crazy seeking this answer. And it’s wonderfully funny to watch. But why?
Maybe because I Heart Huckabees exists in the world of adults: these aren’t moody teenagers or despairing, on-the-fringe artists, but mostly professionals who suddenly find themselves questioning what it is they’re doing. So when Dawn, the “face” of Huckabees, is drawn under the influence of Jaffe & Jaffe’s existential philosophy and suddenly breaks away from her pretty-girl, picture-perfect life and starts wearing baggy overalls to photo shoots, giving deadpan and harsh assessments to the shallowness of the wares she’s hawking, and eventually hilariously rasps “Fuckabees” into an executive’s ear that questions her new style and attitude, it’s a wonderfully funny sight to behold. Any movie that makes the quest for finding your true self its central thesis is a noble one; watching grown adults turn themselves inside-out while seeking that truth provides for great farce.
And maybe it wouldn’t work if the production itself wasn’t so slick: its color palette alternates between the overblown commercial color of Huckabees’ commercials and its drab headquarters, the cool minimalist offices of Jaffe & Jaffe, washed-out blues and grays that seem to follow Albert around, and the general realism of every set in-between is what sells this film’s realism. What makes it a delight is the whimsical plot, characters, dashes of visual effects, and music that infuses the film with the bit of magic needed to make this a comedy instead of a drama.
Another element that makes this film a lot of fun is the lack of stakes involved: nobody in this film is in dire straits. They aren’t going to die or end up homeless or lose everything they have (well, nothing truly important, anyway). This lack of stakes also makes the film carefree instead of a slog and adds to the lightness it aims (and succeeds) to establish.
Every character in this movie may have been able to live the rest of their lives just fine without having existential detectives trying to help them sort things out, but it was their choice in the first place to seek out their services: even Brad Stand, who initially join up with them as a way to shake Albert out of his position as the head of a local environmental group, signed up under his own free will, and when his life comes crashing down as a side-effect of the Jaffes’ influence–where he loses his job, his girlfriend, and even his house (which Dawn sets on fire in an attempt to rid herself of rampant materialism, only to end up in the arms of fireman and fellow truth-seeker Tommy) even he’s afforded a glimmer of hope in finding out something about himself eventually, and possibly become a better person as a result.
About the comedy of this film: watching these adults try absurd methods to attain some sort of enlightenment, from being zipped up in a black bag to envision positive images to smacking each other in the face with giant bouncing balls, provides funny visuals and physical comedy. Watching adults run around shouting about nihilism and meaning in corporate parks and running away from existential detectives like there’s something tangible at stake is funny; watching Lily Tomlin’s Vivian diving into the backseat of someone’s car and sneaking around the Huckabees corporate offices is funny. Watching the nihilist philosopher Caterine give Albert’s parents the third-degree over curious findings in his childhood diary is funny. Having Shania Twain as a central figure throughout the plot–from being part of Huckabees’ promotions to her music suddenly popping up to being part of Brad Stand’s well-worn amusing patter to corporate to her actually showing up in the movie is funny. In fact, under the modus operandi of this film, almost everything that happens in this movie is amusing.
I almost wish people could take detours like this in real life, where there really were existential detectives that could enter your life and scramble things up and help people question what it is they are doing and why. At the very least, it would help people realize that underneath the self-regard and artificial importance they overlay upon them based on their social status, occupation, and material wealth, everyone’s an existential mess and are just trying to figure out their place in this crazy modern world.
I’ve studied a lot of existentialism, what being a bookish–some would say insufferable–intellectual in my youth, and honestly, David O. Russell’s presentation of the philosophy is somewhat…wrong. Really, the Jaffes espouse more of a metaphysical or absurdist take in their philosophy, but for mainstream shorthand, he captures the spirit–if not the literal definition–of existentialism. The nihilism described here is pretty on-point, though. No matter: it’s a comedy first and second with serious philosophical inquiry a distant third or fifth. Even if it leads just one person to pick up an “Existentialism for Beginners” book, or at least has a few people sit in a meadow at dusk or wonder where their nose ends and the rest of space begins, then it’s done an admirable job on the philosophy front.
This film–released in 2004 and decidedly not a hit at the box office, only later finding an audience in the years that followed–is a refreshing and comedic reminder to maybe look around your own life, ask the bigger questions, and wonder what it’s all about. But if you’re still in doubt, go and knock yourself out.