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Jean Paul Sartre Goes Hollywood

by Lucius Shepard
October 26, 2004

Once upon a time, when my beard was barely sketched upon my chin, I was wont to sit long hours in campus taverns, waxing passionate over things I did not quite understand. Matters literary and philosophical, mostly. Conversations fueled by pitchers of beer and the various other stimulants with which nineteen-year-old would-be intellectuals are prone to defile the temples of their bodies. All that has changed is now I do my sitting in working-class and hotel bars—my lack of understanding is no less complete than it was, although perhaps I express it more clearly, and my assertions are leavened with a seasoning of doubt or speculation. I recall being so assertive back in the day that I undertook to write a work of philosophy entitled True Lies, which dealt with—among other things—the dualism implicit to language and, I was to discover later, consisted chiefly of inept restatements of the theories of early Ludwig Wittgenstein and Benedetto Croce. I look back on those times with a degree of nostalgia because of the certainty I felt, because of the arrogance that allowed me to make the assumption that I could wrap my mind around the universe and squeeze forth some crucial and hitherto unexcavated truth. I also look back on that assumption with a profound measure of embarrassment, a feeling apparently not shared by David O. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster), whose new film, I Heart Huckabees, seems something of a reprisal of such sophomoric deliberations.

The comedy of ideas does not have much of a tradition in American cinema, which partly explains why a picture as unsteadily mounted as Huckabees has received so much critical attention. Recently, only Waking Life, Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped animation feature, has dealt (more successfully, I might add) with the fundamental materials of Russell’s film, i.e., the constituency of reality. Philip K, Dick’s novels are rife with similar ideas and comic possibility, but unfortunately the movies made from them have concentrated on their action elements and neglected their essential stuff. In films like Love and Death, Annie Hall, Play It Again, Sam, and others, Woody Allen, the uncrowned king of this sub-genre, succeeded in making pictures that treated philosophy with a sly amiability and, more significantly, were often wildly humorous. Huckabees seems to essay a post-modern take on a Woody Allen film, but whereas Allen’s films are often amusing, Russell’s picture flounders amid its own clunky metaphors and unrelenting cleverness. Although it provides a few good moments, basically it’s as deadly boring as a seven-course meal of oatmeal recipes. To tell the truth, a movie concerning how this film got green-lighted in the first place, one detailing the various meetings, studio heads mulling over the concept of an existential comedy (”Um . . . It’s still a comedy, right?”), pretending to understand what they’re talking about, relying on the fact that Russell, who has not made a film in four years, is a bankable director—that might have been considerably more funny.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a twenty-something activist, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore), who is the founder and leader of Open Spaces, a group that opposes suburban sprawl and, in the specific, is committed to saving a particular marsh. He’s made a deal with devil, Brad Stand (Jude Law), a corporate executive with Huckabees, a Target-like chain of stores, who professes to share Albert’s enthusiasms but has co-opted the movement to his own nefarious purposes, arranging a benefit featuring Shania Twain to save the marsh, a plan that strikes the membership of Open Spaces as a more promising campaign than does mailings of Albert’s tree-hugger poetry. At the same time, Albert is undergoing a personal crisis, or thinks he is—he keeps running into the same young seven-foot Sudanese refugee, Mr. Nimieri, and he has become convinced that these coincidences reflect the onset of some material dilemma and bear upon the nature of reality. To alleviate this crisis, he goes to see Bernard and Vivian (a Beatle-mopped Dustin Hoffman and a matronly Lily Tomlin), “existential detectives” whose method of investigation demands total access to their clients’ lives, allowing the pair to spy on them night and day; it also involves their placing the client in a sensory deprivation bag, a process during which the clients see their problems perched in the branches of a tree. The detectives further appear to be gifted with magical powers that enable them to break reality down into its component parts for purposes of examination, an effect that Russell achieves through a variety of camera tricks.

Bernard-and-Vivian’s essential theory is that everything is connected—in fact, they seem to be stating that everything is everything else, a oneness. Bernard demonstrates this circumstance by moving his hand underneath a blanket, making shapes, and saying, “This is you, this is a cheeseburger, etc . . .” We are, he claims, all under the blanket. As they begin to investigate Albert’s case, their theory takes control of the movie, drawing in almost the entire cast. Brad becomes a convert, as does his girlfriend, Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), the Huckabees perky spokesmodel, and Albert is introduced to his “other,” kind of an analogue to an AA sponsor, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a fireman so obsessed with the evils of petroleum products, he rides his bicycle to fires. Eventually, after Jason and Tommy visit Mr. Nimieri in the home of his adoptive parents (one of the movie’s funnier scenes), your basic clichéd Christian right-wing couple, Bernard makes the case that the serendipity between Albert and Mr. Nimieri is due to the fact that one was orphaned by politics, the other by indifference (Albert’s parents are equally clichéd materialists, who are shown to care more about their malfunctioning stereo than their son’s existential dilemma).

With this question firmly resolved, the film’s focus shifts to the contest between Brad and Albert, essentially stand-ins for the opposing views of spirituality and materialism. To a lesser extent, it shifts as well to the conflict between Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) and Bernard and Vivian. Catherine, a former pupil of the detectives, has evolved into a pop-philosopher who has come to hold that the universe is random, cruel, and meaningless, this in direct opposition to Bernard-and-Vivian’s warm-and-fuzzy view of interconnectedness; she wanders onto the scene and for no reason that is made clear (though an ideological rivalry is implied) takes an interest in Albert’s case. From here on, the movie disintegrates or, more to the point, loses its interconnectedness and lapses into wackiness—in fact, Russell appears to be relying entirely on wackiness to provide pacing. Dawn becomes a disciple of Bernard-and-Vivian’s, takes to wearing overalls and an Amish bonnet, and subsequently loses her job to a peppy redhead. In a fit of existential enlightenment, Catherine and Albert smear each other with marsh mud and become lovers. Tommy discovers that he can achieve a form of satori by smacking himself in the face with a balloon, a knowledge that he passes on to Albert. Brad loses his ability to tell his favorite anecdote, a story about Shania Twain and chicken salad sandwiches, and is thoroughly disgraced in the boardroom. Tommy, responding to an alarm on his bicycle, beats the other firemen to the fire, to find Dawn half-succumbed to smoke inhalation, and they initiate a relationship that causes both to be hospitalized. The film’s best moments belong to Watts and Law as they struggle to reconcile their materialistic lifestyle with the New Age-y hoo-ha into which they have newly bought. Though there is a vague progression to these events, a sort of ping-ponging structure between the poles of “all is one” and “all is chaos,” the looseness of Russell’s direction causes it to seem indulgent—it’s as if he’s trying to stretch his material, as if he’s run out of ideas—always a bad thing when you’re attempting to film a comedy of ideas.

The case can perhaps be made that Russell’s intent with Huckabees is purely satire, that it was his sole idea to poke fun at pseudo-intellectuals by belittling their notions of profundity. The materials of the film are, indeed, satirical; the characters scarcely more than caricatures who represent crudely stated polarities; but the fact that Russell labels his film “an existential comedy,” and that he has infused the movie with a distinct tone of affection for its ideas, undermine this notion and causes one to think that he is using satire to point up, gently, the confusion of the human condition and not for some more strident and abrasive purpose. Also it is worth noting that the publicity materials accompanying the film stress that Russell has for lo these many years “grappled” with such philosophical questions, and offers the dubious credential that he once studied eastern philosophy at the knee of Bob Thurman, Uma’s daddy (I suppose that Bob is the one responsible for Uma’s innate grasp of Hegelian dialectics, which in turn led her to marry that mental giant Ethan Hawke, in hopes that their issue would prove to be a philosopher king). If true, and if Huckabees is the distillation of that grappling, it does not speak well of Russell’s intelligence—Russell is forty-something and his abstruse speculations have a decidedly adolescent cast, exactly what one would expect from a movie directed by someone who is considered by Hollywood standards to be an intellectual rebel. Even if untrue, he does not do sufficient justice to the ideas embodied by his characters to make of his satire other than a club wielded against an unworthy Target.

Films such as Ghost World and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind treated of the search for the meaning of life, but they had a lighter comedic touch that ultimately proved more affecting (indeed, a dash of Charlie Kaufman’s skewed humanism would not have been unwelcome in Huckabees). Woody Allen, as mentioned, once did this kind of thing much better, able to deride yet at the same time humanize his New York intellectuals.

The cast strives bravely to make something out of nothingness. Wahlberg serves up just the right mix of earnestness and obsession and interacts well with Schwartzman, who is coming to resemble a young Tom Cruise disguised in Groucho Marx eyebrows. Watts, who was robbed of an Oscar for her performance in 21 Grams, proves as adept at comedy as she is at drama. Law projects a smarmy handsomeness, which augurs well for his upcoming performance in the remake of Alfie. Hoffman and Tomlin are appropriately silly, and Huppert’s turn parodying a latter-day Simone de Beauvoir lends the movie a touch of class it otherwise lacks. But good comedic performances cannot compensate for a script that becomes, as the movie drags on, increasingly unfunny. Imagine being trapped in a conference room filled with scriptwriters who have been charged with the task of rendering the works of Jean Paul Sartre, which they do not fully comprehend, into one-liners. That should give you some idea of the tediousness of the film. The characters are not infused with enough humanity to sustain them against the redundancies of the script, and the main problem with I Heart Huckabees is that it has no heart.