- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

“I ♥ Huckabees,” a woefully freakish, pseudo-philosophical farce from David O. Russell, demonstrates that one gem — Mr. Russell’s clever and satisfying “Flirting With Disaster” — does not immunize a promising humorist from grievous miscalculation.

A motto concludes this calamity, sustained with disheartening consistency from fade-in to fade-out: “No manure, no magic,” presumably a coarsened paraphrase of a venerable cliche, “Out of the mud grows the lotus.” In either phrasing, one is meant to be reminded that messy processes of struggle and creation may precede a marvelous result. Maybe so, but they can also lead to monstrosities.

Witness “Huckabees” itself, a remorseless stinker whose intellectual confusion is unredeemed by compensatory esthetic magic. Not to mention thematic clarity or illumination. The happiest prospect is that it might be an irresistible magnet for blithering psychotics.

The movie begins with a profane outburst from a character who appears to be suffering a Tourette’s moment: Jason Schwartzman as an unkempt, insecure youth named Albert Markovski, whose self-esteem is wrapped up in a community environmental lobby, the Open Spaces Coalition. Indeed, Albert regards himself as the virtual embodiment of the group. He resents the fact that Huckabees, a prosperous and expanding retail chain, has pre-empted his righteous indignation by embracing the organization. So much so that fellow board members tend to look to Huckabees for leadership and generous funding, rather than the dogged and heartless capitalistic opposition that Albert would prefer. He has also been usurped by a maddeningly attractive rival in the Huckabees management: Jude Law as an ingratiating and opportunistic sales executive named Brad Stand.

However, the two antagonists share vulnerabilities. Both resort to consultations with Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), the conjugal proprietors of an “existential” detective agency. The Jaffes don’t so much snoop for clients as snoop on clients, a methodology intended to resolve identity crises through enhanced self-awareness and bond all vexed clients in a recognition of universal atomic structure and affinity.

The Jaffes are benevolent busybodies, urging a big Yes to creation. An apostate, Isabelle Huppert as a best-selling French nihilist called Caterine Vauban, is trying to gum up the works by creating circumstances that foster negation, enmity and estrangement. She gets her treacherous hooks into Albert and another morose Jaffe subject, Tommy Corn, a belligerent fireman.

As Tommy, Mark Wahlberg is better synchronized with the filmmaker’s aberrant, ranting sense of humor than the other cast members. The clash of clients and therapists also sweeps up Brad’s dishy girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), Huckabees’ favorite advertising model.

Almost every character in “Flirting With Disaster” seemed distinctive and eccentrically amusing. Almost every character in “Huckabees” seems ill-conceived and eccentrically alienating. The discordant notes start clanging from the outset and get worse as the dialogue clots with psychobabble, probably meant to be satirical but too turgid to approach idiomatic fluency and sharpness. The most telling line seems to anticipate the bafflement awaiting audiences: “I have no idea what you guys are talking about.”

Mr. Russell’s comic imagination has wandered up an unseemly, bewildering dead end. “I ♥ Huckabees” is as wrongheaded as “Gigli,” but at least that more comprehensible dud could be identified as a botched update of Damon Runyon’s fiction. I’m not sure what comedy tradition “Huckabees” is butchering. Perhaps it derives from a parallel universe in which every “Flirting With Disaster” is mirrored by a consummated disaster.

*

TITLE: “I ♥ Huckabees”

RATING: R (Frequent profanity; occasional comic and sexual vulgarity, including brief simulations of intercourse; facetious depictions of violence).

CREDITS: Directed by David O. Russell. Screenplay by Mr. Russell and Jeff Baena. Cinematography by Peter Deming. Production design by K.K. Barrett. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Music by Jim Brion.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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