I attended a party over the weekend where I overheard the following, slightly drunk, rant exchanged over ice-cream cake and beer: "Did anyone see I Heart Huckabees? Well, I did, and I didn't 'heart' Huckabees at all. I hated it. That's what they should have called it: I Hate Huckabees." Other partygoers jumped in with "What do you mean? I 'hearted' Huckabees a lot," or "I didn't understand it, but I guess I 'hearted' it well enough."
For the record, I did not heart Huckabees, nor did I hate it. And I feel like I did a substantially good bit of homework. The two movies I saw before it were What the Bleep Do We Know? (another metaphysical indie that explores the interconnectedness of the universe) and Team America, which suggests that the world's occupants are puppets. I left I Heart Huckabees tired, if mildly amused, and wrestling with the notion that I should have gotten something that I didn't get: I have a masters degree. I should get this, right? I would like to heart Huckabees.
The titular Huckabees refers to a megastore like Wal-Mart or Target, with a bouncy 1950s Old Navy-style of retro marketing. Its slogan: "One World. One Store." Yikes! A conservation group, Open Spaces, is trying to preserve a marshland that Huckabees would like to turn into a shopping complex. (Can you even build a mall in a marsh?) Open Spaces frontman Albert (Jason Schwartzman) leads the crusade against the project, but Huckabees exec Brad (Jude Law) has joined Open Spaces and tries to craft a compromise that will save part of the marsh while keeping the mall.
Brad's success, hot girlfriend, and shifty politics upset Albert, who counters Brad's compromise by reading poems at construction sites and generally flaking out as the leader of an organization of flakes. Muddled, he seeks the services of Vivian and Bernard Jaffe -- a pair of "existential detectives" (played in a funny but odd way by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) -- hoping that by being followed and charted, his life can start to make sense. Particularly troubling is a series of "coincidences" that involve running into a tall, Sudanese exchange student who lives with a family of Christian capitalists who have delegated him to gather celebrity autographs (?).
When the detectives start following Albert to work and become involved in the lives of the people there, Albert's life unravels even more. That is, until Albert runs into a fellow neurotic: environmentalist firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), whose examination by the Jaffes is interrupted by a competing philosophical detective, nihilist Caterine Vauban (French actress Isabelle Huppert). Meanwhile, the ever-smiling pig Brad -- whose work with Open Spaces reflects the need to seem caring without actually being caring -- casually enlists the Jaffes for detection of his own life. Sounds fun, doesn't it? But the Jaffes discover that beyond Brad's pretty face and successful image, there is a deeper, troubled soul that deserves examination and change. This causes trouble between him and his trophy girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), who soon enlists the Jaffes herself. Existentialism is everywhere -- it's chaos!
This movie bills itself as "existential comedy." That being box-office poison aside, I Heart Huckabees is not very funny. There are some chuckles to be had here and there, and while the comedy is played very broadly, my response was generally curiosity and confusion rather than laughs. The film only really gets good when the Jaffes are studying Jude Law's Brad. Not because that section is funnier (it's not) but because their work actually uncovers something interesting in Brad. I, Bo List, have never had the problem of being a shallow, successful pretty boy in need of introspection (alas), so I was fascinated to see this smiling, gee-whiz corporate cad get upset about what was inside of him. I was bored watching Schwartzman's Albert deal with the same things because he already thinks too much. What's the fun in watching an intellectual dwell on himself even more than usual?
The cast is top-knotch, not to mention diverse (Hoffman, Wahlberg, Tomlin, Tippi Hedren), but nothing gels in David O. Russell's script and direction. (He wrote and directed 1999's wonderful Three Kings.) It's like the philosophy in the film: Everything connects, yet it doesn't. Yet it does. What the Bleep Do We Know? cleverly illustrated that things that seem to touch really don't. I Heart Huckabees illustrates something similar: Things that should be funny, by law of mathematical probability, probably aren't.