Guess What, I [Heart] I [Heart] Huckabees, David O. Russell’s ‘Out There’ Film

David O. Russell’s I [Heart] Huckabees, from a screenplay by Mr. Russell and Jeff Baena, displayed more charm, guile and precision than I had anticipated after having been exposed to its laboriously antic coming attractions, and upon reading a dispiriting interview with its flaky and hyper-intuitively improvisational director. In fact, these preliminary portents were so alarming that I was tempted to skip over it altogether until it came out on VHS or DVD. But after some students in my class said they’d liked it, the last thing a graybeard professor needed was to be tagged a Neanderthal.

So I trotted off to a morning screening at the local multiplex, where I watched Huckabees unfold with a scattering of spectators. The cast was listed alphabetically in the opening credits, starting at H with Dustin Hoffman and Isabelle Huppert, proceeding to L with Jude Law and leaping to S with Jason Schwartzman, T with Lily Tomlin and W with Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts. I wondered why there were no cast members between A and G, or between M and R. I wondered also why in my long professional life I had managed to meet three of the players (or was it that too many for my presumed critical objectivity?). I had heard that the film was unusually cerebral and intellectual for an American production, and I was determined to keep my wits about me as I searched for hidden meanings and esoteric subtexts.

I was immediately dismayed when the first words spoken on the screen were variants of the F- and S-words, profanities designed to make teenagers titter and guffaw. But launched at the beginning of the film, there was neither any context nor provocation for the stream of obscenities, which weren’t even repeated over the course of the film. Mr. Russell, I deduced later, had started with an abrasive alienation or distancing effect to prepare us for the greater risk he was about to take with dialogue so relentlessly philosophical that it would have to be disguised with the broadest slapstick that he and his players could devise.

Huckabees then emerges in helter-skelter fashion as a romance of ideas for our troubled times. Still, I was far from enchanted at first by Mr. Schwartzman’s Albert, an enraged poet-environmentalist determined to rescue the marshes and the forests from the global desecration of the Wal-Mart-like Huckabees. And I certainly didn’t need any lectures about the environment being menaced by monopoly capitalism. But the various liberal causes mentioned in the film are merely the pretexts for the expression of a very healthy skepticism about all radical and fanatical “solutions.” The point is that none of us is pure, and nothing is as simple as it seems.

Albert, for example, is hardly the pure idealist he pretends to be. He has founded an environmental group mainly to promote his very bad poetry. His onetime best friend, Brad Stand (Mr. Law), a manipulative Huckabees advertising executive, co-opts Albert’s organization with a cynical guarantee to preserve the marshes, the unstated price being the destruction of the forests. Expelled from his own organization, Albert is so demoralized that he seeks the help of a firm of “existential detectives,” operated by Mr. Hoffman’s Bernard and Ms. Tomlin’s Vivian.

This is the beginning of a merry daisy chain of conflicting affinities linked together by Mr. Russell’s dazzlingly Ophülsian camera movements. This process of farcical linkage is never flat-out funny, but I realized that I was smiling steadily at the sheer resilience of the characters in their quixotic quest for self-fulfillment.

Vivian’s modus operandi as an existential detective consists of snooping on her client during his every waking moment, looking for clues to his failure to recognize that everything in the universe is interconnected. Bernard’s approach is more hands-on, with such props as a large white sheet and sealed black sleeping bag in which the client exorcises the inner demons that keep him from embracing the universe. (In this darkened space, Albert fantasizes chopping off Brad’s head with great glee.)

Suddenly, Vivian and Bernard are drawn away from Albert by the travails of another client, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg). A fireman who has embraced the concept of one universe enthusiastically, Tommy has now become a raging inferno of outrage over the exploitation of children by multinational firms in Third World countries; the plundering of the planet’s natural resources; and the befouling of the air, the oceans, the rivers and streams. As a result of the process of venting his fury incessantly, Tommy’s wife is divorcing him and he’s facing eviction from his home. Despite the stridency of his complaints,

Mr. Wahlberg makes Tommy the most likable and sympathetic character in the film.

Recognizing a fellow sufferer from an overheated social conscience, Albert befriends Tommy and tries to comfort and console him for the world’s shortcomings. They decide as a twosome to embrace the nihilistic anti-connectedness doctrines of Caterine Vauban (Ms. Huppert), who just happens to be in the neighborhood promoting her book proclaiming the inevitable drift of the universe into the abyss.

Bernard and Vivian warn Albert and Tommy not to believe Caterine’s fractured-universe theories, but to no avail. Yet Caterine, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, cannot resist seducing Albert, thus shattering his homoerotic friendship with Tommy, who walks away in a huff from the mud-splattered spectacle of Albert and Caterine coupling in the moist soil of a fractured universe.

Much later, when Albert has regained his senses, he shamefacedly confesses to Tommy that he has never before had any success with attractive women, and I felt an immediate twinge of guilt for disliking Mr. Schwartzman as an actor for his heavy-breathing lack of charm.

Meanwhile, the existential detectives have been responding to a facetious request for their services from the overconfident Brad, but instead they turn the tables on him by exposing his own insecurities. This turn of events prompts Brad to ask himself the damning question (also the motto and moral of the whole film): “How am I not myself?”

Naomi Watts’ Dawn, Brad’s longtime girlfriend, has had her teasingly exposed body exploited as a globally identified Huckabees-girl consumer. When she decides she wants to be photographed more realistically as the typical housewife who shops at Huckabees, she proceeds to dress up (or rather down), adopting a look that one catty woman industry-type describes as Amish bag lady.

After Brad instructs the “new” Dawn to leave the Huckabees building by the back entrance, Dawn decides to end it all by setting the house that she and Brad share on fire. Tommy the fireman comes to her rescue, and the film comes full circle with its rearranged affinities.

It is difficult for me to describe how sweet and buoyant I found the film, despite its seemingly excessive stylization. The whimsical, 46-year-old David Owen Russell, of Hairway to the Stars (1990), Spanking the Monkey (1994), Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999), is fully in evidence here, but with even more audacious whimsy than before, and with a less conventional narrative structure. Huckabees is, in contemporary parlance, way more “out there” than any other American movie you are likely to see this year. Yet it is also compelling enough for me to make my 10-best list. Among its stylistic felicities are the environmentally sensitive bicycle rides, some in the midst of gas-guzzling traffic gridlocks. Here’s one picture worth thousands of words.

Africa, Rise Up

Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé, from his own screenplay, is the 10th feature film this 81-year-old Senegalese director has made in a career spanning 41 years, and it’s likely to be his most timely and most challenging to date. In essence, Moolaadé is a feminist fable for complacently liberal Western audiences who regard the lives and struggles of sub-Saharan Africans as regrettable and unconscionable, but hardly worth a night at the movies. For most African-American moviegoers—who’ve been criticized for shying away from any serious political statement on screen—the situation is even more deplorable. It’s a shame, really, because Moolaadé is more harrowing, horrifying and genuinely suspenseful than the whole run of mindless shock entertainment from the big studios.

Yet Mr. Sembene’s movie is also a beautiful film with a deep feeling for the ritualized daily life of the inhabitants of a tribal village in Burkina Faso. Mr. Sembene has always been a sensitive director of women, from as far back as Black Girl in 1966. In an interview granted to Moroccan professor Samba Gadjigo in Rabat, Morocco, on the eve of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Mr. Sembene described Moolaadé as ” … a film that takes place in a rural space, a village symbolic of a green Africa. This Africa, while living its life, is in contact with ‘the others.’ So, we have some exterior influences which allow the African to gather a better knowledge of himself. In Moolaadé, there are two values in conflict with each other: One the traditional, which is the female genital excision. This goes a long way back. Before Jesus. Before Mohammed, to the times of Herodotus. It’s a Tradition. It was instituted as a value in order to, in my opinion, continue the subjugation of women … the other value, as old as human existence: the right to give protection to those who are weaker. When these two values meet, cross, multiply, clash, you see the symbolism of our society: modern elements and elements that form part of our cultural foundation. On top of these add the elements that belong to the superstructure, notably religion. These are the waters in which this group, this film sails.”

Strangely, the cool, abstract tone of Mr. Sembene’s description does not begin to convey the hot emotional power of the women in the film, who rebel against the patriarchal tyranny of the village’s Muslim elders; as one well-informed village woman dares to tell the men, there is no sanction in the Koran for female genital excision. Think of an African Frank Capra directing a movie about women uniting against a barbaric tradition, and you come closer to the triumphant moment when the tribal wives and mothers rise up against the high priestess of female mutilation. For the squeamish, I should add that Mr. Sembene never displays the process itself, but merely the unsanitary, germ-ridden implements that have caused the deaths of many of the victims of genital excision. Yet Mr. Sembene does not exaggerate the dimensions of the victory against male tyranny on this one issue. There is much pain and death, mostly for females, before even this limited advance is achieved. Still, the characters, male and female, are presented distinctively and fairly, completely free of melodramatic caricature. Moolaadé is a film to be seen and treasured.