The making of 1999’s THREE KINGS exhibited a supernova of artistic growth for its embattled director, David O. Russell. However, just as an exploding star will eventually entropy into an inward-surging black hole, so too did the 46 year-old filmmaker find himself gazing inward; caught in the grips of a personal and artistic midlife crisis that would compel him to return to his roots– indie comedies preoccupied with the topic of identity and the search to attain it. Indeed, THREE KINGS was such a beast apart from his earlier work that Russell seemed to have lost his bearings on the direction of his artistic character. Instead of agonizing over which path to take, he decided that his next project would be about the path itself. Drawing much of his inspiration from the teachings of his mentor Robert Thurman — a metaphysical philosopher at Columbia and father to Hollywood actress Uma Thurman– Russell crafted his fourth feature film as a biting satire on corporate “benevolence” initiatives and a face-melting comic journey into the philosophical tenets of existentialism (1). Released in 2004, I HEART HUCKABEES perfected the formula Russell had been tinkering in the decade since SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994), while neatly harmonizing with the symphony of other experimental arthouse mind-trips of the era like Spike Jonze’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002).
Produced by Russell, Gregory Goodman, and Scott Rudin– that powerhouse mogul of prestigious auteur fare– I HEART HUCKABEES drops its anxiety-riddled pin right into the middle of a generic, contemporary cityscape (played, naturally, by Los Angeles). First conveyed through his curse-laden interior monologue and then through the increasingly absurd exterior plot machinations he finds himself in, the story of I HEART HUCKABEES orbits around protagonist Albert Markovski, a long-haired and well-dressed green spaces advocate fighting off the self-serving designs for a new park by the Huckabees Corporation, a retail department store giant and his commercial partner on the initiative. Played to idiosyncratic perfection by Jason Schwartzman, Albert is something of a cypher for Russell himself– both share external characteristics like a similar manner of dress and a passion for anti-corporate activism, as well as interior traits like a crippling identity crisis. To help regain his faith in himself, he enlists the services of the Jaffes– a pair of self-styled “existential detectives” who will observe his every waking moment in an effort to find the root of his problems. Dustin Hoffman plays Bernard Jaffe, the hang-loose yin to the buttoned-up yang of his wife, Vivian (sleekly embodied by Lily Tomlin in her second performance for Russell after 1996’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER). Both patient and prognosticator are foiled by their inverse reflections– Markovski by a coldly ambitious and smarmy Huckabees sales executive named Brand Strand (Jude Law, using his effortless good looks to beautifully ironic effect), and the Jaffes by Isabelle Huppert’s Catherine Vauban, a French author and fellow philosopher who claims the dark power of nihilism as her home turf. The philosophical tug-of-war between these five characters also sparks a chain reaction of existential trauma for THREE KINGS headliner Mark Wahlberg’s emotionally fragile firefighter, Tommy Corn, and Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, who, after years of objectification in front of the camera as the Huckabees spokesmodel, has become self-aware and demands to be recognized for the flawed and intelligent person she is (the moment where she venomously disses her longtime employer as “Fuckabees” is one of the film’s best laughs). In a bid to stuff the story with absurdity at every turn, I HEART HUCKABEES also features appearances by Hitchcock Blonde Teppi Hedren as a combative member of Markovski’s coalition, Isla Fischer as Dawn’s air headed replacement, a running joke about Shania Twain culminating in a surprise cameo from the singer herself, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER’s Richard Jenkins as a bearded avatar of the hypocritical middle-class values that rest at the convergence of Anglo-Saxan Christianity and suburbia, and even the film debut of Jonah Hill as Jenkins’ porky brat of a son.
The cinematography of I HEART HUCKABEES marks a return to the understated and straightforward patina of Russell’s first two features. Shot in the anamorphic aspect ratio on 35mm film by cinematographer Peter Deming, the visual style adopts an approach not unlike that of Paul Thomas Anderson’s from the same period. Indeed, the influence of PTA– specifically PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE— is embedded into the DNA of Russell’s formalistic camerawork and the offsetting of a muted, neutral palette with splashes of bright primary color. Russell further echoes the conceits of Anderson’s anxious romance with his hiring of composer Jon Brion, who brings his signature eclecticism to bear in the writing of a whimsical score played in the minor key and marked by the use of unconventional instruments like the Chamberlin- an electronic keyboard from the 1960’s that emulates other instruments via recorded tape (1). This isn’t to say that Russell’s aesthetic here outright steals from Anderson; rather, he uses these conceits as building blocks for the foundation of his own take. Towards that end, he infuses the film with a sense of magical realism, echoing Bernard’s establishing explanation of “the blanket truth of everything” by employing pixelated tiles floating away from their fixed position in the frame and other visual “glitches” that hint at the hidden reality that lies beyond what we can physically see.
All of Russell’s films up to this point have been about identity in some capacity, with the plots boiling down to a simple question with a maddeningly, elusively complex answer. SPANKING THE MONKEY asked: “who am I?”, while FLIRTING WITH DISASTER wondered: “where do I come from?”. THREE KINGS stared at the wreckage of war smoldering around it and mused: “what do I do now?”. I HEART HUCKABEES poses, perhaps, the ultimate question: “what does this all mean?”. The characters find themselves adrift in the current between two opposing philosophies: “everything is connected”, and “nothing means anything”. Russell mines these heady, unwieldy ideas for every ounce of comic potential, charging the film’s volatile familial relationships and wittily profane interactions with a crackling thematic energy.
Perhaps the idea that I HEART HUCKABEES explores with the most resonance is that of “false narrative”– the fake realities we wield as armor against our deepest insecurities. Our false narratives can become so real to us that we shut out anything that might challenge it– even if it’s in our best interests. There’s a pivotal scene in which Albert is ejected from his own coalition, his idealism crushed by the ignorance of those unwilling to listen. As an idealist, he stands by his principles, in stark contrast to the Huckabees Corporation’s nihilistic abandonment of them in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. He learns the hard lessons that Capitalism will always trump Altruism, because it has no regard for values or principles beyond inflating its bottom line. In light of the 2016 US Election, I HEART HUCKABEES takes on a renewed resonance, its teachings having gone sorely unheeded. We need look no further than former Arkansas governor and failed GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to see this willful ignorance at play in our own reality– when asked for his reaction to the film in 2004, he is quoted as saying: “It was as if somebody forgot to give the actors a script and said, ‘For the next two hours, just go out there and do something.” (1) Ignoring the numerous things that are inherently wrong in that statement, Huckabee’s reaction illustrates a profound unwillingness or inability to engage an idea in debate or conversation, exhibiting instead an insecure tendency to regain power by discrediting the integrity of the person expressing the idea. This mentality affects both sides of the aisle, poisoning our values and identities with the slime of hypocrisy and derailing any semblance of rational discourse with a false narrative. The film also shows how these false narratives can trickle down from the corner offices to Main Street, staging a heated argument between Schwartzman, Wahlberg and Jenkins’ characters during dinner. In elaborating on what he does for a living and his own existential crisis, Albert inevitably pokes holes in Jenkins’ own false narrative, revealing his inherent hypocrisies. Jenkins wraps himself up in the armor of patriotism and Christian righteousness as an example of True American Morality, but Albert highlights how incompatible those values are with the capitalistic convictions he also carries. Jenkins can’t accept this truth, shutting his guests out of the conversation and out of his house; denying himself an opportunity for growth and enlightenment.
The usage of Schwartzman’s character as a cypher for Russell himself means the story, in manners both oblique and direct, can be read as an autobiographical expression of his own artistic unmooring following the tumultuous, hard-earned success of THREE KINGS. In making that film, the former activist and scholar had become a part of the Hollywood machine; toiling away in the belly of a beast that had little regard for his own artistic agenda. Russell’s personal experience at the intersection of capitalism and the arts colors I HEART HUCKABEE’s philosophical conflict, showing how the two forces both repel and attract each other. Russell places great emphasis on how corporations co-opt artists, illustrated in Brand’s pursuit of pop star Shania Twain for their greenspace initiative as a means to distract consumers with beauty and flash while he advances the commercial interests of his employer. It’s not a stretch to venture that Russell arguably felt this way himself, having been an in-demand indie director enlisted to helm a big-budget studio picture, only to discover they were only interested in the cultural street cred that came with his name. Now, that may be a bit unfair to the studio, considering Russell developed the story himself and they ultimately stood behind his vision, but that didn’t mean egos weren’t bruised and passions went un-stoked in the process. Indeed, Russell’s passion as a filmmaker is evident in every frame– and beyond too, judging by the set videos that surfaced a few years after the film’s release showing Russell and Tomlin screaming nasty epithets and hurling middle fingers at each other like nuclear bombs. These tapes cemented Russell’s reputation as a temperamental and difficult director, but it’s worth noting that Tomlin– much like Clooney on THREE KINGS— still held him in high regard afterwards despite bearing the brunt of his ire, perhaps a (begrudging) professional respect built on the bedrock of his artistic integrity.
I HEART HUCKABEES was a modest success at the box office, opening with the standard indie strategy of an initial limited release before a wider rollout. Reviews were decidedly mixed, leaning toward the positive. Despite its rather unremarkable reception, the film has gone on to accumulate a great deal of respect as one of the better films of its decade– if not in the top twenty maybe, certainly the top forty. Russell himself regards I HEART HUCKABEES as his least favorite film (1), which is understandable given that it finds him actively working out his personal mid-life crisis in full view of an audience of millions. As Russell’s career has played out in the years since, it’s become more apparent that his so-called “midlife crisis movie” is really a trilogy, of which I HEART HUCKABEES is only the middle chapter. This phase– marked by decreasing returns and the public airing of Russell’s production grief– had unwittingly started with THREE KINGS, and would continue on towards its nadir: the disastrous shoot of a romantic comedy called NAILED in 2008, which would only see release in 2015 under the title of ACCIDENTAL LOVE and without Russell’s directorial stamp of approval. His fumbling through the fog of existential confusion had unwittingly led him into the wilderness, and it would be quite some time yet until he emerged as an artist reborn.
I HEART HUCKABEES is currently available on standard definition DVD via Twentieth Century Fox.
Produced by: Scott Rudin, David. O. Russell, Gregory Goodman
Written by: David O. Russell
Cinematography by: Peter Deming
Production Design by: KK Barrett
Editing by: Robert K. Lambert
Music by: Jon Brion
- IMDB Trivia Page