Monday, April 18, 2005

I HEART HUCKABEES collapses under the weight of its own eccentricity

I HEART HUCKABEES is a movie with so much chutzpah that you desperately want to like it, but in the end it collapses under the weight of so many kooky characters; so many superficial nods to philosophy. The sad truth is that no matter how many individually eccentric characters you throw up, no matter how many suitably indie cuts from Jon Brion you put on the sound-track, a movie has to be more that a kaleidoscope of cool. While HUCKABEES has something like a narrative arc, and some rather witty scenes, at times the whole thing just teeters over the edge of control into full on absurdity and brings the viewer out of the picture. But, in these sadly conventional times, I'd rather have a movie fail for attempting too much than retreading mediocre hits of the past.

Some of the complexity will be hinted at by my attempt at a summary of the characters involved. A young earnest man called Albert (Jason Schwartzman) spends his time campaigning against environmental damage by a Walmart-like chain of supermarkets called Huckabees. Afflicted by angst, he hires a couple of existential detectives (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman.) What this means is that they believe that everything is inter-connected and fundamentally okay: they just need to spy on Albert's every move in order to find out the root source of his angst. Much of it lies in his interminable fight against Huckabees, personified in its ueber-smooth PR man, Brad (Jude Law), and his Barbie-doll squeeze, Dawn (Naomi Watts). However, life is not so green on the other side of the fence: Dawn is disillusioned with her brighter-than-bright image, and consequently making life hard for Brad. In the midst of all this we have a troubled fire-fighter (Mark Wahlberg) who wanders round in his dressing gown convinced that the world is going to hell on a high wind thanks to its addiction to oil. Tommy subscribes to an alternate philosophy proposed by a formidable French philosopher played by Isabelle Huppert, which is, shall we see more Herzogian. Life is cruel: get used to it.

I cannot really summarise the plot. Such as it is, it consists in these wildly eccentric characters interacting in a series of scenes that are alternately funny, funny yet strange or just plain strange. And then the whole thing sort of collapses under the weight of myriad ideas. There are wondrous moments: the conflict between
Jason Schwartzman's Albert and Jude Law's Brad is hysterical, and perfectly cast. There is something maliciously enjoyable in seeing someone who appears to be as suave as Jude Law undergoing a complete breakdown. Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts display real comic talent - superb timing and deadpan delivery. But what can have attracted an actress of the calibre of Isabelle Huppert to such a role? I mean, seriously, how does one go from The Piano Teacher to I Heart Huckabees unless you are sending yourself up? Similarly, I have seen Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin funnier.

On balance I feel that in the case of HUCKABEES, sheer
ridiculousness isn't enough to make the kind of film you want to see again, or tell your friends to see. It seems to combine one part Charlie Kauffman insanity with one part Wes Anderson eccentricity, shake them both together and put the results on screen without much disicpline or order applied. Perhaps this is the philosophical point of the movie? Either way, it doesn't leave much for the humble audience member to cling on to.

I HEART HUCKABEES played Toronto and London 2004 and is released on DVD today.

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