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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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I Heart Huckabees

David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees is what we critics like to call "a personal film," by which we mean 1) it doesn't really speak to us, 2) the director doesn't seem to care whether it speaks to us or not, but 3) we've liked his previous films, so we're not going to get all bent out of shape over this one. In Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, Russell staked out a comedic territory all his own - the family as an emotional straitjacket, squeezing the juice out of life. And in Three Kings, he gave us the best look we've gotten at the every-man-for-himself jarheads of Desert Storm. But I Heart Huckabees is different, somehow - nuttier, flakier, willfully "out there." Any movie where Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play "existential detectives" who steer their clients toward the meaning of life, which is that life doesn't have a meaning, has, at best, one foot on the ground. I Heart Huckabees may not have feet at all. It's simply a conceit that's been floating around inside Russell's head.

Well, not floating, whizzing. The movie comes at us like a screwball comedy - a screwball comedy that stares at the abyss, only to have the abyss stare back. Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman, all grown up and with a pair of eyebrows that Groucho would have taken clippers to, is Albert, a tree-hugging activist who can bring a rally to a screeching halt with one of his poems. Albert, it turns out, is not in synch with the universe's underlying rhythms. And a series of "coincidences" - he keeps running into a tall man from the Sudan - sends him into the waiting arms of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, the Nick and Nora Charles of investigative existentialism. Their methods are unorthodox, at best. Vivian spies on Albert's every move, sifting for clues. Bernard zips him up in a body-bag and encourages him to let his sense of self dissolve. Basically, they're trying to dismantle Albert's day-to-day reality.

I Heart Huckabees is trying to do the same to ours, and at this it admirably succeeds. What it's less successful at is replacing our day-to-day reality with a compelling one of its own. Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts all show up, ready to sacrifice their dignity on the altar of Russell's zany notions, but their roles are all over the place, like electrons that have spun out of their orbits. Law plays Brad, an all-American go-getter type who, on behalf of the Wal-Mart-like Huckabees chain, has co-opted Albert's Open Spaces Coalition. Wahlberg is Tommy, a firefighter who, since 9/11, has gone through an existential crisis of his own, the crisis taking the form of an obsession with the evils of petroleum. You can feel the social satire running through I Heart Huckabees. In fact, it all but reaches up and licks you on the face. But Russell won't settle for satire this time around. He's after the whole enchilada, being and nothingness, life as one great big cosmic joke. But I wonder whether the joke isn't on him.

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