During my chosen screening of “I Heart Huckabees,” I couldn’t help but be distracted by a slow yet steady trickle of audience members who, peace made with the loss of seven dollars, stood up and shuffled toward the green glow of the nearest exit sign. Having never walked out on a movie in my entire life, I struggled to divine the reason that one might throw up their hands, decide they’ve had enough and abandon such an intriguing film for the rainy, hobo-filled streets of the outside world.
Confusion, perhaps. Who among us hasn’t escaped a class lecture whose subject matter has long since left us behind? Without the needed foundation of previous information, it’s pointless to remain in the room, peppered by a hail of incomprehensible facts. The mistake made by my dissatisfied fellow moviegoers was, I presume, taking literally the words and images with which they were presented. In their vain attempts to grasp the outlandish philosophical concepts that serve as the picture’s shifting foundation, they’d gotten lost along the way. Regardless, they probably weren’t on the correct road to begin with.
Billed as “an existential comedy,” “I Heart Huckabees” drifts freely between the trappings of both a full-on cognitive exploration and an absurdist farce. Hitting this particular tone is a canny move on director David O. Russell’s (the man behind the excellent “Three Kings”) part, as films dealing with the “Big Questions of Existence” have heretofore tended to fall victim to either laughable self-importance or excruciating blandness. This movie, on the other hand, remains entertaining while keeping its crosshairs trained on the ideas that can, when over-thought, keep a person awake at night.
The storyline brings together a series of troubled individuals, each embroiled in their own abstract crises. Plagued by seemingly coincidental run-ins with a large Sudanese refugee, environmental activist poet Albert Markovski (“Rushmore’s” Jason Schwartzman, in a welcome starring role) consults an existential investigation agency to sort out his life. Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a husband/wife team of philosopher-detectives, commence what appears to be 24-hour (“Even in the bathroom?”) surveillance of Albert’s quotidian reality.
Other clients under the Jaffes’ watch include Tommy Corn, an intensely anti-petroleum activist and firefighter (Mark Wahlberg, playing it completely straight) and Brad Stand (Jude Law), a shallow advertising executive who serves as a textbook yuppie and foil for the protagonist. Wanting to improve the ailing public image of his employer, the Target-like chain megastore Huckabees, Brad hires Albert’s pro-nature coalition in order to put forth an aura of ecological conscientiousness. Driven to cynicism by the SUV-driving businessman’s abuse of his organization, Albert joins Tommy in the worship of a French nihilist.
The ensuing film portrays the comically convoluted struggle between two ideals; while Bernard and Vivian insist that everything in the universe is connected to everything else and thus nothing is unimportant, the mysterious Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) argues for the utter meaninglessness of humanity and the surrounding world. The rest of the major characters bounce like ping-pong balls between these two extremes, landing in several amusing comic vignettes (one hilarious sequence finds Albert and Tommy at the dinner table of a devout Christian union worker) and a number of bizarre dream sequences that resemble nothing so much as those wacky cut-and-paste cartoons that circulate around the Internet.
There is no doubt in my mind that thousands of armchair philosophers will exit the theater singing the praises of the characters’ musings on total interconnectedness and better living through isolation and pain. Another, larger group will be left scratching their heads, possibly cursing the intellectual pretentiousness that they believe has co-opted the silver screen. The third, smallest category of “I Heart Huckabees” viewers will have realized that the joke has been planted squarely on the other two. How can you tell who falls under this designation? They’re the ones who enjoyed the movie.