It’s Anarchy! Film’s New Hacks

Kneeling at the trough of psycho-gibberish that has come to symbolize contemporary movies, a piece of crap called I § Huckabees sinks to new depths of incoherent pretentiousness. But I will refrain from labeling it “The worst movie I’ve ever seen!” because, like the proverbial boy who cried wolf, I’ve blurted out that cry of despair so many times, who would believe me? Besides, they just get worse. The sheer volume of lousy movies made by arrogant kids with a lot of attitude and no talent has already reached such capacity level that any critical dismissal on Friday becomes redundant by the following Monday. With so many amateurs who run what’s left of the defunct studios making bad movies that pander to an easy-to-satisfy youth market, and with so many bogus producers who used to be grocery baggers at the A&P always miraculously raising the money to make more, one thing is certain: No matter how rotten the movie is that you just suffered through, there’s another one on its way that is 10 times worse.

And so I § Huckabees may not be the worst movie ever made, depending on how you feel about such hollow, juvenile and superficial trash as Brewster McCloud, Hudson Hawk, Punch-Drunk Love, Mulholland Drive, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost Highway, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and … well, as they said in Hollywood during the McCarthy witch hunts, “the list goes on.”

The egomaniacal young director-producer-writer David O. Russell is a member of the new group of anarchists that includes Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, freaky Todd Solondz and the dismally overrated non-writer Charlie Kaufman, who wins critical praise for writing incoherent movies about why he can’t write coherent movies. (Some critics also include Alexander Payne, which is a true insult; in my opinion, he can do one thing none of these other jerks knows how to do—make narrative movies about real people that tell profound stories for a broader and more sophisticated audience. He is miles ahead of the others, and movies like Election, About Schmidt and his forthcoming masterpiece Sideways prove it.) Mr. Russell seems to worship the absurdity of the New Hacks (all style and no content) and especially the neo-Kafka burlesque of Charlie Kaufman. I § Huckabees is an algebraic extension of all of them put together—eccentric but brain-dead—and therefore offers no fresh equation of its own.

Since it doesn’t make one word of sense—and isn’t supposed to—there’s not much to say about it. With greasy long hair, a permanent stubble of whiskers and a face as appealing as Limburger cheese, Jason Schwartzman plays a goony environmental-activist poet (whatever that is) searching for the deeper meaning of life. So he hires two married jugheads called Existential Detectives (whatever that is), played by a bewildered Lily Tomlin and a catatonic Dustin Hoffman in a Beatles wig. These two ripoff artists promise to lead him “closer to the parallels of existence, which does not exist,” even if it means spying on him behind his locked bathroom door. What a horror to watch Lily Tomlin struggle to say, with a straight face: “When you floss or masturbate, that could be the key to your entire reality!” As much as I admire Ms. Tomlin as a standup comic, her range as a real actress has never seemed more narrow than it does here. Rolling her eyes, hugging the trunks of trees and making ludicrous faces, she looks lost and homicidal, like the evil road-company Daughter of Fu Manchu.

Meanwhile, new clients sign on, including Jude Law as a smarmy executive at “Huckabees, the Everything Store,” who wants to turn the woodlands protected by the Open Spaces Coalition (whatever that is) into parking lots; Naomi Watts as his neurotic girlfriend, a Huckabees icon who models bikinis in mop commercials; and Mark Wahlberg as a deranged firefighter who wants to wipe out all of the world’s petroleum. They ride bicycles, blow up kitchens and talk in riddles, although nothing they say is either meaningful or comprehensible. “Everything is the same, even if it’s different.” “There’s no remainder in the mathematics of infinity.” “Intimacy is a combo of infinites.” “There is not one atom in our bodies that hasn’t been forged by the furnace of the sun!” Meanwhile, they are all stalked by the existential sleuths’ former star pupil turned arch rival, a best-selling nihilist philosopher (Isabelle Huppert) whose motto is “Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness!” “Why?” asks Ms. Tomlin. “Why not?” is always the answer. Strictly slumming in an effort to become an American film presence, Ms. Huppert’s thickly French-accented one-liners make even less sense than everyone else’s as they melt in the garlic butter of day-old escargot. The talent pool is impressive. The embarrassments are many.

It’s rare to see a union of such accomplished folks so desperate to form some kind of emotional connection with material that is essentially unplayable in a film fueled by chaos. Farcical elements like the repeated attempts of Mr. Schwartzman and Mr. Wahlberg to knock each other unconscious with a gigantic pink balloon and dream sequences inspired by Magritte are so exasperating that the odd result is a film that consists almost entirely of show-off surrealism, nonsensical non sequiturs and wacko improvisations heading for a train wreck. I hated this director’s three previous films, too, but at least Three Kings, a preposterous satire of the Persian Gulf War, seemed grounded in some kind of cohesive idea. I § Huckabees is in the air at all times, ready to float away along with the cartoon conundrums that pass for dialogue. The characters are too abstract to make anyone care about them, and the glue that holds them together is strictly Elmer’s. Although there’s a heart in its title, there is nothing in the center of I § Huckabees but helium.

Forget This

Julianne Moore is too precious a commodity to fritter away her time and talent on a no-thrills thriller as bland and superficial as The Forgotten. Looking good but feeling awful, she plays a grieving mother named Telly whose 9-year-old son died in a plane crash. On the verge of a psychological power failure, she forgets where she parked her Volvo. Her photo albums have blank pages. The images on her home videos have been erased. Her picture frames are empty. Her husband (Anthony Edwards) and her shrink (Gary Sinise) tell her there never was a son, her memories were invented after she suffered a miscarriage, and her mourning is a form of psychosomatic self-delusion. Is she the three faces of Eve? Is she going insane? She leaves home and finds that newspaper reports of the tragedy have disappeared from the microfilm files at the library. Aha!

One sole ally surfaces in the hunky form of a drunken hockey player named Ash (Dominic West), whose daughter was on the same plane! Suddenly, for reasons that would take too long to explain and don’t appear all that logical in the first place, Telly and Ash are fleeing the cops, the federal government and a bizarre group of X-Men who explode in a puff of computer-generated noise that might otherwise be mistaken for flatulence. Telly is convinced she’s the victim of a government conspiracy and the children are still alive somewhere.

But it’s worse than that—and sillier. You can blame it all on Condoleezza Rice and the National Security Agency. They’re in cahoots with, uh, like … aliens! It’s all some kind of extraterrestrial research project to see if memory can be erased. As long as one person refuses to forget, the experiment is a failure. And the Bush administration is in on it! Yes! I kid you not. Next thing you know, they’ll be blaming flying saucers on the Republicans. Fear of the unknown takes on new panic and distrust when the National Security Agency is lurking menacingly on your cell phone. Directed by Joseph Ruben and not so much written as Microsofted by Gerald Di Pego, the film’s absurd sci-fi hokum with a supernatural twist is doubly unsettling because of the alluring Ms. Moore’s above-the-title appearance in it, as though attention must be paid. “There are worse things than forgetting,” says memory-blotting alien Linus Roache (who was more convincing as the gay cleric in Priest), but when it comes to movies like The Forgotten, I can’t think of one. The title says it all.

Swingin’ Dixie

The new cabaret season is off to a crawl, but it’s always pleasant when Dixie Carter drops by at the Café Carlyle between bouts of Bobby Short. Cavorting among the Ludwig Bemelmans murals for the first time in six years, she’s on view through Oct. 9 and always a soothing sight for the rawest optic nerves in town. Accompanied by pianist-songwriter John Wallowitch, her longtime pal, playmate and partner in musical crime for four decades, Miss Dixie, at 65, is funny, flamboyant and age-defiant. And legs for days! Languishing horizontally on top of the grand piano, she flashes them through silk net stockings sheer enough to make Sally Bowles blush, and the audience yells for more. More skin, more songs, more stories about Delta dawns and narcissus-scented nights, and what fool could wish for anything more? She plays the trumpet, the harmonica and the heartstrings with style and wit and sophistication. From the soulful torchiness of Johnny Mercer’s “When the World Was Young” and the dusty beauty of Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old-Fashioned” to the golddigging flappery of songs from 42nd Street, she phrases like an actress and squeezes the nectar out of every lyric. With a friend like Mr. Wallowitch at the keyboard (and the rhythmic support of drummer Warren Odze), she is on the path to Eden. The pianist is well-known on New York’s late-night circuit for fashioning more than one phrase to amaze, and for Miss Dixie he has provided some special material that really rocks. The raunchy down-and-dirty aria “Cheap Decadent Drivel” is not the kind of song she will be doing anytime soon at Vacation Bible School. But the elegance of “Come a Little Closer” and “This Moment” is as sublime as songs about love and life and loss are ever going to get. Yes, this is good, solid, reliable stuff. Plugging tunes or doing kicks, Dixie Carter is a sexy Southern hummingbird in a happy-making, harmony-sharing, honeysuckle-sipping class by herself. Long may she flutter.

Postscript

Sean Penn, an admirably fearless and outspoken liberal with passionate opinions, has nevertheless objected to my inference that after promoting his role as a would-be assassin in his new film The Assassination of Richard Nixon with all of his candid attacks on the Bush administration during the recent Toronto Film Festival, he might welcome the opportunity to assassinate somebody himself. These were my words, not his, and I certainly didn’t expect anyone to take them seriously. It was a joke, not a prediction, and if Mr. Penn saw it otherwise, I sincerely apologize. Maybe, on my part, it was just wishful thinking.