Maybe it's the mark of a great film that it can affect an audience member even when he sleeps through the entire thing. Such was the case with my father at a recent preview of David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees, a philosophy lecture masquerading as a comedy in which shrill Lily Tomlin and mop-topped Dustin Hoffman play existential detectives looking for meaning in the life of Jason Schwartzman, playing an environmental activist trying to save marshland from a retailer's encroachment. The old man dozed throughout the whole film, waking only when prodded and even then only for as long as it took to close his eyes again. Yet the next day he rang and insisted, through the phone's receiver, "You owe me for that fucking movie," and then explained the movie that put him to sleep one afternoon kept him awake that night, but only after a series of nightmares that led him to question his own existence. He couldn't recall exactly what his dreams had been about, only that he awoke from his restive slumber soaking in his own cold sweat. The movie had somehow seeped into his subconscious and was now trying to escape, one freezing drop at a time. I, on the other hand, slept like a baby that night, confident that while I existed, I Heart Huckabees barely did, if at all. Perhaps this is just another case of my father's vote canceling out mine.
Certainly I Heart Huckabees will reach a certain portion of the audience that sees it; they will find truth and beauty in its theoretical pronouncements and see something of themselves in the characters who are desperately yearning for some kind of spiritual-physical-emotional connection in the mundane chaos and vapid coincidences of their everyday existences. Russell covered this ground in his far superior Flirting With Disaster, in which Ben Stiller sought out his birth parents in order to find the roots that would anchor his rudderless existence. But with co-writer Jeff Baena, the filmmaker's certainly into some deep and heady shit here -- or just full of shit. And for that he's to be applauded, if not lauded; blessed is the filmmaker who uses the medium to do more than shill soundtracks and provide us with empty escapes into Never-Neverlands of dull, dumb explosions.
But Russell, a former student of Buddhist monk-philosopher Robert Thurman, is reaching too far, straining too hard, saying too much that adds up to so little after all the mumbos and jumbos tallied up by film's end. The movie skitters along at a pace frenzied enough to maintain the illusion that it's moving toward some Grand Conclusion, but it gathers only steam that evaporates like smoke. In the end you're left caring nothing for the movie's characters because they're merely cutouts presenting the two sides of one man's inner debate. This is moviemaking at its most personal -- a student thesis performed by topnotch players (also including Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts and Jude Law) rounded up by a director who asked them to act out ideas disconnected from any real emotion. You don't feel for any of these folks, because they don't feel anything themselves. They whine plenty, kvetch till they're blue in the face, piss and moan till they're empty. But feel? Not even with their fingertips.
Schwartzman is Albert Markovski, head of an environmental-activist group called the Open Spaces Coalition, trying to keep Huckabees, a sort of hipper Wal-Mart, from building a new store out in some beautiful woodlands. Albert's seduced by Huckabees exec Brad Stand (Law, all grins and golden hair) into working with the company: Albert will stop protesting Huckabees, which in return promises to not only stop construction but to hire Shania Twain as Open Spaces' new eco-friendly spokeswoman. Of course Brad's a liar, but Albert's just as liable: He wants to believe Brad, maybe even to be Brad, who has everything Albert doesn't, including Huckabees model Dawn (Watts), who pitches product in TV commercials sporting only a radiant smile and bikinis the size of Band-Aids.
In the midst of this crisis, Albert suffers an existential breakdown, prompted by three run-ins with a tall Sudanese man, and hires Bernard and Vivien Jaffe (Hoffman and Tomlin) to spy on him all the time, since maybe the truth about him is revealed in how he brushes his teeth. The Jaffes try to convince Albert that everything in the universe is connected, but he's being torn apart by the Jaffes' rival, a nihilist named Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who screws Albert in a puddle of mud and makes him confront the mother (Talia Shire, Schwartzman's real mom) who always treated him like an afterthought. And with that we're back in Flirting territory -- it always comes back to the parents. Also tossed in there is Wahlberg as the fireman terrified of petroleum; he rides a bike to a fire, which may be the funniest joke in the whole movie.
Eventually they all collapse into a heap of spiritual crises, with Watts donning dirt makeup and Amish bonnets, Brad watching his primo gig slip away, Albert moving further toward nihilism and the Jaffes confronting Caterine in a subplot that suggests theirs is a failed love triangle from way back. But what does it all mean? Dunno and don't care, because there's nothing here to care about. It's as though Russell once more is that philosophy student trying to impress his old professor, looking for that good grade, at the expense of the good movie this might have been had the director had anything to, ya know, say.