I Heart Huckabees

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Fans of Jason Schwartzman have had reason to grow reticent over the years.Nothing short of a revelation in Rushmore, the young actor’s subsequent roles, including the better-off-forgotten raunchy campus comedy Slackers and last year’s execrable amphetamine flick Spun, have done little to cement his status as a great comic performer.Sure, it’s only been six years since Schwartzman reinvented teen angst for the post-Graduate generation with his turn as Max Fischer; in casting him as the lead in his new film, David O. Russell effectively pulls off a Tarantino-esque fallen-actor resurrection.Now those who spent the last few years asking what happened to that one guy from that funny movie with Bill Murray can breathe easier. He’s still got it.

The same could be said of the director.This is Russell’s first film in five years.After releasing two dark and promising comedies in the mid-nineties – Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster – Russell followed them up in 1999 with a bleak tragicomedy about the first Gulf War called Three Kings. Too grim and poignant to inspire belly-laughs, too satirical to be placed alongside Oscar-bait like Saving Private Ryan, Three Kings was ahead of its time – a Beckett-like war pic that grabbed onto a caper plot it almost didn’t need and exhausted it.It’s riveting cinema, and Russell no doubt needed a lengthy vacation after its release.Now, in the Year of the Political Documentary 2004, he’s returned with a slapstick comedy that is not without its own – however muted – political message.

The narrative events of David O. Russell’s films seem plausible enough as you watch them, but become staggeringly difficult to put back into words after the fact.Huckabees begins with young poet-cum-activist Albert Markovski (Schwartzman) hiring husband and wife existential detectives Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to ferret out the significance of a tall Sudanese man (Ger Duany) who has repeatedly and coincidentally crossed Albert’s path of late. Not content to snuff out the coincidences there, the Jaffes pair him up with a troubled fireman (Mark Walhberg, Three Kings, Boogie Nights) and hone in on Albert’s adversarial relationship with his nemesis and ostensible partner in eco-friendliness Brad Stand (Jude Law, Cold Mountain). Brad is an executive honcho and professional smile for the Huckabees Corp, a Wal-Mart-like neverland of unctuous retail nirvana, and has usurped Albert’s spot at the head of their conservation trust of late because he just might be able to bring Shania Twain on board as a spokeswoman.That Brad just might be yin to Albert’s yang is the philosophical koan this film tries to wrap its brain around.

Huckabees is a comedy about existential chaos, thus it is played at one intellectual remove from the moral chaos of Three Kings.Still, Russell’s ability to mix atrocity and farce is unmatched; for him, humor can only darken the absurdity of the human condition.Tomlin and Hoffman are great as the existential Laurel and Hardy – he’s an aging hippie with a shag ‘do that grooves on the universe’s connectedness, she brusquely links Wahlberg’s firefighter woes with “that big thing in September from a few years back.”When Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher) shows up as a French nihilist detective who’s shadowing the Jaffes and converting their clients to her program of “Cruelty, Manipulation, and Meaninglessness,” the script’s dazzling layers of interconnectedness have come full circle.

David O. Russell makes the most ambitious comedies around, with careful, intelligent writing that is formally arresting, provocative and still wickedly funny. With its zonked-harmonium score by Jon Brion, it’s perhaps inevitable that the film will bring to mind both P.T. Anderson and Charlie Kaufman.Huckabees certainly matches the off-kilter rhythms of Punch-Drunk Love and has a dizzying digital editing strategy that suggests Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But even more than Kaufman, Russell wants to mix existential ennui with absurdist comedy.In this respect he may be film’s most purely comic philosopher since Woody Allen.

Jesse Paddock

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.