BY NEIL FAUERSO
I Heart Huckabees may be the first film I’ve seen in a while where I’ve questioned my response to the film because of other people. I loved it, loved the delirious, madcap feel, loved the absurd mental visualizations, loved the philosophical battle between the new age Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), and the suave nihilist Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). I left the theater feeling I Heart Huckabees was the smartest, most original, and entertaining film since Kill Bill Vol 2. But then, almost everyone I know hated it, found it pretentious, turgid, overwrought, and dumb. Could I be way off base? Have months of watching cult films on DVD perverted my tastes and removed them from any realm of accessibility? I think not. Instead it’s this: I Heart Huckabees is one of those brilliant, divisive films, where the fact that several people hated it does not mean it’s a bad movie, simply one that’s courageous and original enough to be unlikable.
The movie begins with a flourish and never loses steam. The frumpy, slightly arrogant environmental activist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman ) comes to Bernard and Vivian’s existential detective agency through seeming chance. Initially, he wants to investigate of series of coincidental encounters with a tall, Sudanese doorman, but quickly Bernard and Vivian discover a much more severe crisis. Albert is engaged in a bitter power struggle with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a smarmy executive for the giant Wal-Martlike chain store Huckabees. Brad is trying to jockey Albert out of his position in an environmental non-profit that wants to protect a marshland that Huckabees threatens. As Bernard and Vivian get involved with Brad, his girlfriend, Miss Huckabees Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), a distressed firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), and their nihilist rival, and Albert and nearly everyone else has some from of nervous breakdown, the film reaches peaks of nearly unrivaled delirium.
One of the things I loved about the film, that I suspect a lot of people hated, was the way director David O. Russell externalized all the psychic stress that modern Americans carry but rarely discuss outside of internal monologues with self-help books. And to do so with such wit, absurdity, and lightheartedness only adds to the relevance of this decision. No one wants to be lectured in a film, but when a chintzy, computer animated scene involving a machete and a high school English teacher speaks to your own life, you know it’s a special flick.
Russell, whose previous films, Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster, were impressive, if uneven, has assembled an astonishing cast that holds the film together. Schwartzman, so enchanting in Rushmore, returns to his deadpan triumph with Albert, a shambling, unsure, haughty character who’s somehow lovable. Hoffman and Tomlin are delightful and believable as a zany couple whose business is other people psyches. Jude Law and Naomi Watts are both hilarious as a couple crippled under their own tinsel delusions. But it is Wahlberg who steals the picture. As a fireman obsessed with the global detritus caused by petroleum, Wahlberg mixes rage and pathos into a brilliant, magnetic performance. This is Wahlberg’s best work since Boogie Nights and one of the best performances of the years.
I Heart Huckabees does not follow conventional cinematic rules. The plot zigs and zags, starts and stops, takes seemingly random detours. Like Fargo, or Punch Drunk Love, the texture of the film is as important as its narrative thrust. But like those films, it never grows dull or gimmicky; it’s a high-wire act frozen in a death-defying trick.