Monday Movie: I Heart Huckabees, by David Bax
Even for someone like myself who is a huge fan of David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, it can be hard to separate it from the leaked video of Russell losing his temper like a megalomaniacal, foulmouthed toddler and being cruel to the great Lily Tomlin during production. That’s a shame, though, because the film remains phenomenal, by far the purest distillation so far of the things that make Russell who he is as a filmmaker. In the wake of his recent output of mostly decent crowd-pleasers, it’s easy to forget what an idiosyncratic firebrand he can be. Take Bradley Cooper’s manic performance and goofy wig from American Hustle, multiply it by ten and you’ve got just some of what I Heart Huckabees achieves.
As persistently odd as the film is, it’s striking to realize that Russell is embracing his classicist side in the aesthetic and constructive choices. As in another of his great films, Flirting with Disaster, Russell is making a screwball comedy. Thus, his framing choices often include traditional over-the-shoulders, two-shots and wide shots, all of which emphasize the actors’ performances over the director’s style. The clip at which his cast moves and speaks is matched by the tempo of the cutting, with very few other adornments.
Still, I Heart Huckabees is more than some throwback. Russell is using the pleasing surface of the screwball mode as a sturdy base for his characters’ deep existential angst. The movie’s competing philosophies (“everything is connected and important” vs. “everything is meaningless”) are purposefully broad. They need to be able to represent a gamut of new age belief structures because, as vigorously as these ideas are batted back and forth, they are not what the movie is about. Russell isn’t really taking these cartoonish governing tenets seriously; he’s far more interested in the very real pain of those who seek them, a group which includes all of us. Seeking out a set of axioms by which to organize your life only works in a vacuum. Out here in the world, everyone’s convictions are always knocking into one another.
By framing his heartfelt humanism inside a gonzo design, Russell is daring you not to take him seriously. Now that he’s become a fixture of the middlebrow awards season slate, that oddball, anarchic prankishness has all but drained from his work. It makes you wonder as Jude Law’s Brad does in I Heart Huckabees, how is he not himself?