Thursday, 16 July 2009

Spiral 568's Greatest Movies Countdown: No#101: I Heart Huckabees

It takes a lot of time to ponder which is truly the worst of your favorite movies. In a list such as this you love everything on the table. So cruel, pedantic nit-picking becomes the order of the day. So, first up is I Heart Huckabees, the 2004 comedy from Director David O Russell. Russell in many ways is a forgotten gem on the indie scene, getting nowhere near the praise of a Wes Anderson for example. And while he may not have the visual style of Anderson, he always makes films with something to say aside from whimsy and superfluous quirk, which films made in this arena tend to suffocate in. Russell presents a more grounded voice, one that still believes in uplifting but does so with thought and intelligence. His biggest success, the 1999 Gulf war movie Three Kings (This would be the first Gulf war) is as an entertaining action movie as Hollywood has produced in recent memory, but is also more politically engaging and in many ways the most frank look at war America has offered since the decline of the Vietnam movie. But I went for his follow up film because to me it is the more ground-breaking. It took the concept of the broad comedy and infused it with as much intellectual and philosophic credulity as it could handle, ensuring that as long as you look you'll never find another movie like this.

I shall attempt to describe the plot now, but its much more complex then one would usually find in a comedy so prepare to cut me some slack. The film follows Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) as he hires a pair of existential detectives to dissect a coincidence he has involving repeated random meetings with a tall African man. But the detectives are more interested in his work situation, in which the small environmental group he runs has partnered with retail corporation Huckabees, the representative of which is trying to oust Albert from this coalition in order to allow for him to overlook its core issues. And this is nothing. There's also a global warming obsessed firefighter in the midst of his own existential crisis, an airhead model who is coaxed by the detectives into finding a more thoughtful side of herself and also a rival French philosopher eager to spread nihilism wherever she can. Well that'll about do it as a rough template of the plot, but believe me it comes together in a way I couldn't close to describing without a 5000 word essay at my disposal.

What makes this movie great is how, for the most part, the movie is as equally concerned with making you laugh as taking you on an existential journey and by the end it pretty much does both, maybe with a few creases. For every discussion of inter-connectedness or philosophical revelation there's Mark Wahlberg hitting Jason Schwartzman in the face with a giant pink space-hopper (Known as a huge pink ball, for those unfamiliar with 70's fads) or Naomi Watts line delivery of 'Fuckabees', which is close to being the most funny thing of all time. The comedy was a very smart move on Russell's part, because if he'd taken these ideas at face value and made a more serious film about them, it would have been unavoidably pretentious and perhaps even tedious but by drawing laughs not only from the eccentricities of the characters but also from the existentialism itself, and by the very nature of people allowing themselves to be eaten alive by questions they can not hope to answer. Which brings me to another very appreciated aspect of the film. Most films skirting around the issue of the meaning of life usually tend toward the 'Knock a door run' method which is to say bringing up these ideas (knocking on the door) and entirely dodging the issue when it comes time to answer them (running away before the person can come to the door). Huckabees doesn't do that, or at least doesn't do that in the scummy way it has been done in the past. It doesn't quite answer the be all of everything in one line, but does come close in regards to the human condition, explaining what brings us together is the same thing that drives us apart. The inevitability of human drama and suffering. The film says these things better, but the great thing about it is that it gets you to address these issues in your own head and thus has a lasting impact that no comedy I can think of has.

Arguably, the most enjoyable thing about IHH is the ensemble of hilarious performances it has put together, with not a missed not amongst the principle cast, all as good as each other with some maybe even better than that. The lead, at least in theory, is Schwartzman and he is terrific. Honing the deadpanning, smugly smart persona he began in Rushmore into something stronger and more rounded. He communicates the intelligence and pettiness of his character fantastically whilst not forgetting to be hilarious. It really was a great performance that should have brought him more notoriety then it did, with his standout moment being, although he is great throughout the film, in his response to the the question

'Have you ever traveled through time and space?'

'Yes. No. Time not space. No, I don't know what you're talking about'

A testament to Russell's fantastic screenplay too, but Schwartzman is such a perfect fit for this role its uncanny. Upon its release, there was a critical concurrence that the film was stolen by Mark Wahlberg, as the aforementioned petroleum obsessed fireman, and its hard to disagree, although Jude Law's smooth talking corporate man Brad Stand runs him pretty close. I remember when I first saw Wahlberg in this movie I was utterly taken aback. At the time I hadn't seen Three Kings or Boogie nights and only knew him as the personality vacuum lead from the remake of the Italian Job and the remake of Planet of the Apes. Needless to say these weren't good films nor was he good in them so I didn't hold him in the highest esteem going in. But he sure proved me wrong in this film, because he is hilarious pretty much every second he is on screen. It's one of those times where being proven wrong is actually awesome. Jude Law has taken some shit in recent years, as people are at him about being in too many films and a thousand other detractions that it would take too long to name. To these people, I suggest watching this film because coming out of it you can only think that Law is actually one of the best actors ot this generation, in particular a scene where you see his confidence and bravado gradually disappear as he hears taped evidence of his own hypocrisy is a great piece of comic and serious acting at the same time. Awkwardly hilarious but also painfully poignant. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are as good as we've come to expect, with Hoffman visibly enjoying himself in a way that is to be honest rarely seen in recent films. Isabelle Huppert plays her role slightly straighter then the rest of the cast but is still as good, although she nails the 'Don't call it the ball thing' line perfectly. Watts doesn't get too much screen time, but as always is good and actually gets to be funny, which after years of playing deadly serious roles is welcome relief. Plus the Fuckabees thing.

Why isn't it higher? Well it has its flaws. Not all jokes land as well as others, occasionally characters disappear for too long and sometimes the film can be a shade uneven, but these are minor quibbles. Russell's screenplay carries itself with such confidence and the performances are so good that its is able to withstand its flaws and come out unscathed as a hilarious, genuinely ambitious movie that is really a true original. Something that becomes rarer and rarer in cinema these days.

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