Wars, museums, diseases, orgasms, and hamburgers by Rumsey Taylor On his initial visit to the offices of Jaffe & Jaffe, Existential Detectives, Albert Markovski, in a belabored effort to resolve a series of mundane coincidences in his own life, is educated by the second of the Jaffes, Bernard, on the connectivity of the universe. “This is me, all right?,” he says, jutting his finger into a blanket:
And I’m, what, 60-odd years old, I’m wearing my suit, blah, blah, blah. And let’s say over here, this is you. And, you’re… I don’t know, you’re 21. You got dark hair, et cetera. And over here, this is Vivian, my wife and colleague. Then over here, this is the Eiffel tower, right? It’s Paris! And this is a war, and this is a museum, and this is a disease, and this is an orgasm, and this is a hamburger.
Albert is temporarily relieved by a realization: his frustrations, his triumphs, his insecurities—all of it, everything is shared by everyone.
Bernard’s theory of connectivity applies additionally to I Heart Huckabees itself, lending a film that’s as nonsensical as it is eruditely academic, as cartoonish as it is poignant, a necessary critical perspective. When Shania Twain – who’s used earlier as an example celebrity cited seemingly at random – enters in one of the final scenes, you either laugh hastily or stare in consternation. These responses are, with a film this determinedly cacophonic, one and the same. I Heart Huckabees is nearly impenetrable in its tonal and narrative flux, alternating so constantly between psychological posturing, politicizing, and comedy that it amounts to an abstract farce. This tonal fluctuation is so constant that the film alchemizes responses into a sort of dumbstruck awe, characterized by laughter or bewilderment in nearly equal measure.
I Heart Huckabees is David O Russell’s only distributed film in the 00s after his relatively productive 90s. It resembles only his second film, Flirting with Disaster, with its screwball theorizing and subversive humanism. Huckabees’ conception of its time period is notably contemporaneous: the eponymous Huckabees is one of those bland, economically invincible corporations that houses the threshold of those unfettered by the decade’s dual economic collapses. And there’s Tommy Corn, the petroleum-hating, bike riding fireman who iconifies 9/11 heroism. When he reaches a proverbial damsel in distress late in the film, his rescue is preceded by an undue dance of celebration, having reached the house fire that imprisons her on his bike and wasted none of the planet’s rarefied oil. His utility as a cinematic hero is undermined by his environmentalist agenda; the viewer may both admire and disparage him, either response being ultimately appropriate.
It’s important to note that, although cinema didn’t seem to have become that gentrified in the 2000s, films became both more expensive and more inexpensive. Huge, conservative studio productions were competing with much cheaper independent productions. Pulled taut between both ends of this spectrum, O. Russell’s single film remains anomalous within either party. On one hand, it’s a brazenly original, 30-million dollar studio picture, but one without any marketable formula whatsoever. On another, it’s an independent comedy that’s catered especially to arthouse crowds, but it has a price tag and masthead of talent unbecoming of its unconventional spirit. In both regards, I Heart Huckabees was a risk whose failure was predicated by its audacity.
This audacity is precisely why the film should be admired. In a decade replete with reiteration and franchises, I Heart Huckabees is new in a way that distinguishes no other film. But “new” is synonymous, here, with “peculiar.” The film didn’t tank, exactly, but its critical responses were sharply divisive; its Metacritic rating ranges from 100 to 10. And this brings be back to Bernard’s theory of connectivity. Responses to I Heart Huckabees are seldom indifferent—people have loved it as passionately as others have hated it, and both parties make inherently defensible claims about the film: “insane” (Ty Burr, The Boston Globe), “an authentic disaster” (David Denby, The New Yorker), “overintellectualized” (David Edelstein, Slate), “a comedy about everything.” (Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic), “original” (Glenn Kenny, Premiere), “cerebral” (Nathan Rabin, The Onion A.V. Club), “impersonal” (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com). It’s a miracle that such a film was made with such resources and such talent. The result, perhaps inevitably, is a mess, one I will never tire of parsing.