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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

3 Stars

Directed by David O. Russell
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Isabelle Huppert, Angela Grillo, Ger Duany, Tippi Hedren, Darlene Hunt, Kevin Dunn, Benny Hernandez, Richard Appel, Jean Smart, Jake Muxworthy, Benjamin Nurick, Pablo Davanzo, Sydney Zarp, Jonah Hill, Denis Hayes, Isla Fisher, Talia Shire, Bub Gunton, Shania Twain
2004 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, sex, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 14, 2004.

The likely response most anyone will have watching the theatrical trailer and television ads for "IHuckabees" is one of intrigued bewilderment. The cast, it cannot be denied, is of the highest order, and the whimsical style recalls the work of Wes Anderson (1998's "Rushmore"), but attempts at figuring out the basic premise are fruitless. Now, having seen ever last zany minute of "IHuckabees," it is still safe to say that the film is beyond description, which isn't such a bad thing. In a day and age of formulaic cinematic endeavors, when major studios are virtually uninterested in anything that doesn't have an easy "hook" and similarities to past financial hits, here is a motion picture that joyfully plays to its own tune. One would be hard-pressed to find another film even remotely similar to this one, and the risk of being so stringently unorthodox ultimately pays off.

Auspiciously directed by David O. Russell (1999's "Three Kings"), "IHuckabees" is a so-called existential comedy about finding one's place in the world, making amends with the past, and discovering unadulterated self-gratification. It also makes sharp satirical comments on corporate greed, consumerism, therapy, and new-agism. It features occasional fantasy sequences occurring within the minds of the characters, and extreme physical humor that would be at home in a slapstick. The catch is that "IHuckabees" is no spoof, and, barring its way-out-there quirkiness, seems to be set in a fairly accurate, at times painful, version of the real world, where one's happiness is seemingly always offset with despair and tragedy. As the old adage goes, if you're given lemons, you make lemonade, but what the saying never considered is that said lemonade can often, and uncontrollably, be fleeting. Such is the way of life—an incisive observation writer-director Russell gets just right.

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a hard-working, underappreciated activist of nature preservation, has been faced with a number of odd coincidences in his everyday life. He seeks the guidance of Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman), married existential detectives, in figuring out the meaning behind these circumstances, not knowing that their help means being followed, spied up, and studied in an attempt to get to the core of his very being. When Brad Stand (Jude Law), an executive behind a popular retail superstore called Huckabees, catches wind of the Jaffe's work, he decides to hire them for himself in yet another selfish bid to one-up adversary Albert. Also figuring into the story is Brad's spokesmodel girlfriend, Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), who is easily swayed into the Jaffe's existentially pure way of thinking; firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), another earnest client of the Jaffe's, who befriends Albert and willingly becomes his "other;" and the Jaffe's French radical rival, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), whom Albert and Tommy turn to to beat Brad at his own game.

"IHuckabees" is a wondrously bizarre curiosity and a grand entertainment, a film that manages to be uproariously funny both in its broad and subtle strokes, yet continuously feeds the mind in surprising ways. There is a certain pretentiousness that lurks in the air, but it works most of the time, offset by Russell's genuine gusto for the material. Adding to the fantastical beauty and atmosphere is an outstanding music score by Jon Brion (2002's "Punch-Drunk Love"), one of the more memorable of the year.

A level of concentration from the audience is required in order to follow its developments, to be sure, and there are a small handful of foggy elements that could only be clarified with a second viewing, but the extra work pays off. Outlandish sequences that in a normal movie might come off as ludicrous and over-the-top suddenly take on an unforeseen depth and passion once the viewer has gotten a grasp of the characters' exact frames of mind and understand what they are going through. This is particularly the case in two standout scenes—a literally dirt-filled and urgent sexual encounter, and a sudden romantic gesture that occurs between heretofore strangers and destined soul mates in the midst of a house fire.

Credit must go to the actors, who took a sizable risk with this unexplainable project. In the wrong hands and without just the right tone, it is easy to imagine "IHuckabees" failing miserably, and the only one's faced with looking silly are the cast members. For Jason Schwartzman, his endearing turn as Albert marks his most accomplished since his debut role six years ago in the brilliant "Rushmore." As the prying, forthright, and oh-so-sneaky Vivian Jaffe, Lily Tomlin (2002's "Orange County") is a comic delight who steals her scenes. Jude Law (2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") brings a sense of regret and soul late in the picture to his Brad, who at first, second, and third glance comes off as pretty despicable. As Dawn, Naomi Watts, usually seen in emotionally stark roles (2004's "We Don't Live Here Anymore," 2003's "21 Grams"), stretches her abilities as a comedic performer with success. And, perhaps most welcome of all, Mark Wahlberg makes up for recent lackluster work in 2001's "Planet of the Apes" and 2002's "The Truth About Charlie" with a loose and extremely lovable showing as Tommy Corn. Wahlberg and Schwartzman make a splendid team as they join forces to set things right and take down Brad, playing warmly off of each other's personalities.

Really, there is no way to describe "IHuckabees" for those who have not yet seen it, and readers of this review are undoubtedly still scratching their heads. Yes, it is that kind of movie, but director David O. Russell has a gift for making the proceedings all strangely logical and never less than thought-provoking and delightfully gratifying for his viewers. "IHuckabees" stands out as a one-of-a-kind original. Those courageous enough to give it a try will find their efforts rewarded, at times in the most unexpected of ways.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman