This column has produced a number of little seen gems throughout its tenure. One of the rules to the column is that we try to avoid films that have become cult classics. In general, of course, this is a judgment call, because everyone has their own definition of what may or may not be a cult hit film. Obvious examples would be movies like Clerks or Donnie Darko. For me, David O. Russell’s intelligent I Heart Huckabees finds itself firmly entrenched in this gray area, so I am giving it the green light for a write up in this edition of Films-U-Missed. “Huckabees” was largely passed over in it’s 2004 theatrical run, earning just north of $12 million which was roughly half of it’s reported budget. By most accounts a box office failure, but it seemed to have found some stable footing on video shelves, as evidenced by the 33,000+ rating votes on its IMDB page.
“Huckabees” was directed by the notoriously tough-to-get-along-with, David O. Russell. He is almost more famous for his riffs with actor George Clooney and of course, the infamous one with Lily Tomlin, than he is for helming quality works such as 1996′s Flirting with Disaster (with Ben Stiller), or 1999′s Three Kings, with Wahlberg, buddy Spike Jonze, rapper Ice Cube and of course, Clooney. The turmoil he has caused some actors might make for fun headlines, but distracts from a filmmakers oeuvre who continually challenges himself and filmgoers, with I Heart Huckabees being a prime example.
An A-list ensemble cast was on board for “Huckabees,” a difficult film to describe about existential existence. When the tagline states “an existential comedy,” one knows they are not in for the average movie going experience, which perhaps explains why it was widely overlooked initially. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play a husband and wife team of investigators who aim their work at helping people uncover their existential being; their “true self” which will help grant them meaning and purpose on Earth. Among the cast whose intertwining storylines come into play in the film are Mark Wahlberg as a firefighter struggling with familial and career issues, Jude Law, as a corporate hack and boyfriend to Naomi Watts, a model who begins to reject her looks. It is Jason Schwartzman’s “Albert” who kicks it all into gear as a guy attempting to figure out why he has seen a strange individual on multiple occasions. The themes of interconnectedness, randomness and circumstance all play a significant role in the piece as the plot (often hilariously) unravels in a who-done-it sort of way.
Hoffman, Tomlin and Schwartzman play off of each other brilliantly, offering up ranges between manic and confused, which might confound some moviegoers but I think serves to heighten the viewing experience. They record and observe their subjects in every aspects of their lives. While they are showering, sleeping, sh*tting. The mysterious set-up with sleuths on the case framing the story place the viewer in the proper mind frame necessary to try to tackle the difficult subject matter. Wahlberg hasn’t been this funny outside of Boogie Nights and Watts may not have been sexier playing the misinformed blonde. O. Russell keeps the pace flowing; the movie is continually off-kilter, never allowing the viewer to settle into the idea that they have a complete handle on what is taking place or what the films message is.
On that front, ultimately trying to explain the film is futile and against the wishes of the filmmakers, in my opinion. The purpose, in large part, is for individual viewers to examine the movie for themselves and form their own takes. The beauty of an outside-the-box film like this is that there is no clear right or wrong. Its a thinking man’s movie that is open to interpretation. Fans of heavy-handed direct messages or popcorn-flick fare need not apply. Michael Bay (Transformers 2) might not care for this. While we await David’s The Fighter (another Wahlberg starring movie) next, if you have yet to see this, it is worth a viewing, likely multiple, for those that enjoy the concept. Rich layers of story, character and performance nuances are uncovered upon repeat viewings as we try to figure out our own concept of what our existential beings are. It comes recommended, but I think your existential being probably already knew that.