There’s a total of one scene that works in David O. Russell’s mirthlessly self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophic I Heart Huckabees, and another that almost works, except that the director cuts to de rigueur 2004 anal sex, which undermines the flaky charm of having watched Isabelle Huppert (50 at the time of filming) and Jason Schwartzman (then 23) playfully pushing each other’s faces into mud puddles. The carnal May-December mud romp achieves a sufficiently outré quality on its own; for a brief moment, I thought Huppert might outdo Catherine Deneuve’s mud fantasy from Belle de Jour. Russell, however, ruins the joke by shoving Schwartzman into Huppert’s backside.
The movie, as bad as it is, doesn’t lack interest. I keenly awaited the arrival of something, anything, to unify the eagerness of the performers. Here are Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, two ‘70s icons appearing together on screen for the first time, playing a husband and wife detective team, and although Hoffman and Tomlin match up to each other visually—when they rumba on the left side of the frame during an office party, there’s a flash of pleasure—Russell hasn’t written their roles or directed them in a way that makes their apt pairing an affair to remember.
Tomlin speaks Russell’s terse lines in rapturously husky tones, the polished grain of her timbre buzzes as if a cello. She looks smashing in the jet black crepe dress she wears at the beginning, and later, clad in white gloves and a pea-green suit as she dodges lawn sprinklers (sorry slapstick) her “existential” detective somewhat recalls her Ernestine persona: gleefully demented, yet perfectly, pragmatically in control.
In the sole satisfactory sequence, the detectives blackmail their client Jude Law by playing audiotapes that capture him repeating the same banal anecdote, which involves Shania Twain and chicken salad, over and over again. The camera focuses through most of this on Law’s silent, ever more uneasy face as his disembodied voice goes on ad nauseam about an allergy to mayo. Finally, there’s a cut to a reaction shot, and it’s a non-reaction. The detectives sit there so secure in their evidence that Tomlin has produced her knitting needles and undistractedly burrows them through black wool. There’s a bit of psychology here worth exploring—repetitive behavior used to hide something that an individual doesn’t want examined. Russell could take this much further. He doesn’t.
Jason Schwartzman’s acting has become a good deal less unwatchable since his debut in Wes Anderson’s twitteringly awful Rushmore. (That isn’t saying much, I know.) He has been remade in the image of David Russell—the same lank, mid-length dark hair; the shapeless, gray suit jacket and open-collared white button-downs that Schwartzman wears in the film are nearly identical to those Russell wore to the post-screening Q&A; and Schwartzman plays an environmental activist, much as Russell supposedly devoted his life to such a cause until reaching the age of 30. Hair flipping and flying as he runs along a maze of corridors under the opening credits, Schwartzman endearingly resembles a happy, furry little moppet.
Yet if Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski character, a “poet” who plants 8 x 10 glossies of himself in photo collections, is meant to be the writer-director’s doppelgänger, Russell might as well openly confess to being a charlatan, a clever fellow with more chutzpah and bravado than anything fresh or coherent to express, a man who enjoys posing as an artist without the burden of being one.
Russell’s big revelation—that Markovski craves all the things he ostensibly opposes, that Markovski in essence is a twin beneath the skin to his corporate arch-nemesis (the Jude Law character)—shouldn’t come as much of a gasp to anyone who scored a grade of D or higher in Psych 101. (The numbskull Glenn Kenny wrote in Premiere: “Russell might alienate some audience members here—but it’s possible they literally won’t know what they’re missing.” But does Kenny literally know? I doubt it, since he stops his review there sans further elaboration. And what’s with the condescending prissiness of “they literally won’t know” other than smug, hipster journalese?)
When Huppert (marvelous here, despite the script’s limitations) snaps a Polaroid of Law in tears, Schwartzman views the shot and sees his own face materialize over Law’s, also agape in a cry of anguish. The suffering of another is also our suffering; in hurting the enemy, we hurt ourselves. These are lessons worth delving into, the place where that psychic identification (or empathy) begins; again, Russell gives us the obvious, if anything at all.
He tells us that “enlightened” persons aren’t nearly so, the exact same half-spoke he pounded into the ground in his contaminated, toxic little farce of raspberry-blowing hate Flirting with Disaster. I Heart Huckabees is lighter in tone, less ungenerous, and relatively not crass. There’s nothing in it, mercifully, that matches the nihilistic ugliness of his 1996 film, in which Tomlin was divested of house, home, even her ancient pick-up truck, a loss that prompted the line, “My water broke in that truck,” read dolefully yet intended as an anarchically zany riposte by the presumed schizophrenic who wrote it.
Russell has said of his new movie, “I think the most daring thing about it in a way is its optimism.” Well, between Russell’s optimism and Charlie Kaufman’s pessimism, we are stuck with a cinema of absolute zero, the illogical regression of which moves the medium ever closer to a series of blank screens.
At the Q&A that followed an advance screening of Huckabees at Seattle’s Guild 45 on September 30, Russell gloated over the rave review that would appear in the next day’s New York Times. “Fahrenheit 9/11 for the screwball set,” Russell enthusiastically quoted without identifying the critic. The egomaniacal auteur then went on with a cautionary fable about what happens to naughty little movie critics who pan his works of great art. Janet Maslin, it seems, thought less highly of Three Kings than most reviewers and in two weeks time, she was “fired,” thus clearing the gates for A.O. Scott and Elvis Mitchell to liberate film criticism at the Times and in doing so duly proclaim Three Kings as a masterpiece. There have been idiotic rumors before about Maslin (a critic I admire) being sacked because she dared to go her own way and part company from the herd of self-appointed pop-cultural disapprovists. I remember well the mild roar that rose among the lock-step naysayers when, in the summer of 1999, Maslin unabashedly praised Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But Russell’s putdown of Maslin in this way was egregious, both in its inaccuracy and its childishness. (Russell is 46.)
Maslin, of course, as a book reviewer, still writes for the Times. The horridly untalented Elvis Mitchell does not. When it was announced this summer that the elegantly irreverent Manohla Dargis would replace Mitchell, I had hopes that the Times’ movie section might become a fun read once more. True, Dread Scott and the witless functionary Stephen Holden would still be around, but there would be Dargis, scissoring everything to shreds in the style she began at the Village Voice some fifteen years ago and perfected in the Los Angeles Times. Granted, her tenure is only two months old, but already the sharp-witted Dargis shows signs of battle fatigue with the Times’ excessively genteel editing.
Her rave review for I Heart Huckabees, which begins with the afore-referenced cocktail gibberish about “the screwball set,” is as destitute and barren a piece of hack writing since anything from the Bosley Crowther era. Allow me to quote this sentence with the fascinating verb choice: “Mr. Russell…crams the screen with characters, gags, and humanity, and here lays on all three with gusto.” Nothing like a crammed gag to signify a good comedy, and how exactly does one cram humanity, let alone with gusto?
The deterioration becomes a bit sadder: “I’m not sure why, but American moviemakers have never seemed particularly interested in the wider world, which probably accounts for our abiding love affair with genre. Genre suits the stories we like to tell, or maybe it’s just that the stories we like to tell suit genre.” Our abiding love affair with genre…the stories we like to tell…dear Lord, has the formidable Manohla Dargis purposely mixed up authentic storytelling with the sort of schlock that the commercial mainstream drives down our throats, or has she thrown in the towel?
Worse still, Dargis (apparently fearing that she, too, will be relegated to the antechamber of literary essayists a la Maslin) ends her piece with this incomprehensible squawk: “It’s a mad mad mad mad world, and for those who already feel crazy, who wake up and read the morning paper with dread and wonder if we’ll ever wake up from our nightmare, well, have I got a movie for you.”
This is ghastly writing. It’s obscene that such clichéd prose was ever published in the New York Times. Dargis—no, Ms. Dargis—should ask herself if as shallow and slender a reed as Mr. Russell really merits her transformation into a used car salesperson. – NPT
October 4, 2004