If ever there was a country that needed surrealism to express itself, it’s America. Strange then that so few true surrealists have ever emerged from the world’s nuttiest superpower. Warhol is one; Jeff Koons a possibility; David Lynch is surreal as a person, let alone his artistic output, but it’s hard to name more than a handful of artists before you run into Norman Rockwell and his ilk, blandly sweeping weirdness aside to make way for Walmart and the stucco, Starbucks, franchised America that stomps the very surrealists who would do it credit. Surrealism is just too antic for America. Maybe that’s why I Heart Huckabees wasn’t a success. Could be, also, that it isn’t a good film. But even so, it’s different, and its difference should be celebrated.
The plot… Lord help us. I Heart Huckabees is the story of an environmental campaigner (Jason Schwartzman) who hires existential detectives to help him sort out the mess that is his life. Schwartzman seeks answers to life’s eternal questions: Why am I here? What matters? He is an angry, flustered young man, easily peeved and not skilled in bearing olive branches. His current campaign (to save a green space due to be concreted by the soulless Huckabees Corporation) is a disaster. A corporate huckster from Huckabees (Jude Law) has hijacked the campaign group with the intention of re-routing it into the toilet. Schwartzman knows Law is no good, but he’s too jealous of Law (of his looks, his success, his hottie girlfriend and – let’s face it – the fact he’s Jude Law) to present a credible opposition. A battle of wills ensues, aided (existentially) by the existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman & Lily Tomlin).
Does that sound nuts? Have I mentioned Mark Wahlberg plays a fireman who’s anti-oil? Or that Naomi Watts plays Jude Law’s hottie girlfriend (in a bonnet)? If it didn’t sound nuts as a premise for a movie, believe me when I say: it’s nuts in execution. The best way to approach I Heart Huckabees is as a philosophical farce where the action is only really there to act out the big ideas. Existentialism is far more pertinent to the plot than the evil machinations of the Huckabees Corporation. This is a surreal movie, and proud to be. To make it straight-forward would be to leave out all the nuttiness its director cherishes (and to ditch the existential detectives). This film leaves the mainstream trailing in its wake.
Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin look like they’re having fun playing the detectives. And so they should, for these detectives delight in their search. Tomlin’s sly been-there-and-loved-it grin comes in handy when she’s delivering whimsical dialogue. This movie needs a woman who’s lived through the Sixties to play it right. Hoffman too, with his pudding-bowl haircut and chalk-marks on his jacket, looks like he just came from a great party up at Warren Beatty’s house and that I Heart Huckabees is all part of some splendid trip. The younger cast are good. I don’t knock them. But this is a spry film, and it needs older actors to keep it in check. When Mark Wahlberg or Naomi Watts talk about infinity, it’s college kids talking, they’re still grappling with this stuff. Hoffman and Tomlin are good guides for Law and Schwartzman because they aren’t serious, they point to joy. I Heart Huckabees might be about weighty themes, but its message is: try not to worry too much. The Seventh Seal this ain’t.
Surrealism comes to this movie as a gift, a way of saying: bugger plot-structure, screw convincing dialogue. The point of the movie is not, after-all, to depict real people struggling with philosophy, but to depict philosophy in a way that won’t crush enjoyment out of a real audience. Director David O. Russell doesn’t want to be Woody Allen (in serious-mode) any more than he wants to be Ingmar Bergman. He wants to make a skewed movie about a topic that’s dear to him. In doing so, he creates something new and something wonderful. He doesn’t create all that great a movie (sorry folks, it’s a bit too choppy for that), but he makes surrealism American. That is, he takes the scary parts out. His surrealism isn’t designed to disturb (like David Lynch), it’s something more like a fireman’s net, designed to catch dizzied philosophers. Surrealism here isn’t the world inverted, it’s the world split into Lego bricks: bright and fun – philosophy at play.