Why does Ansen write that the plot is not the point here, and then say that “Your mind is engaged and delighted as the movie bounces from philosophical thesis to antithesis to synthesis,” which summarizes the plot, the movement from the Jaffe theory to that of Vauban and then the combination of the two? Ansen also wrote, “You laugh, you smile—but your emotions don’t get much of a workout,” but if you’re consistently laughing and smiling, isn’t what you’re feeling pleasure, possibly very intense pleasure? Whereas Manohla Dargis described the film as “ambitious, heartfelt” in her early October New York Times review, noting its “passion, energy, and go-for-broke daring, in its faith in the possibility of human connection,” Rainer wrote that it would be nice if the film would “well, touch the heart,” and Edelstein claimed it has “zero emotional weight.” Why do we often think that pleasure is the opposite of real or deep feeling? Are the existential crises of Albert, Tommy, Dawn, and Brad being implicitly dismissed as inconsequential? Is that because these are crises of the spirit and of philosophy, not merely concern over sentimental and sexual love and unbelievable amounts of money, which are often what American films are about? Denby writes that Hoffman and Tomlin might have been a classic “nutbrain” intellectual couple if Russell hadn’t directed them to talk over and through each other (which I don’t think they do). Although I’m not entirely sure what nutbrain is, why would Russell want such a presentation, when he takes the ideas of their characters seriously? (Russell told Filmmaker magazine that he wanted the detectives to have a somewhat European formality, to suggest familiarity with the issues involved.) In an interview with Nathan Rabin in the satirical newspaper The Onion’s October 7-13, 2004 edition, Russell said, “When you go to see a more independent-minded film, it used to mean it was a film that was going to challenge your point of view. Now, a lot of times, people are going to reaffirm their credentials. ‘My ironic, cynical credentials are…’ ‘Please stamp my hand. I still belong in the same cynical, ironic club.’ One of the weird things about the film I’m proud of is its sincerity.”
One key to the confusion may be in perceptions of Jason Schwartzman, who I found intense, quirky, and very attractive. I felt Schwartzman more attractive a presence than Jude Law, just as I felt there was something fundamentally sexy about Lily Tomlin, more so than Naomi Watts. I usually find Law and Watts luminously complete and completely luminous. One can imagine the situations that influenced the personalities, philosophies, and styles of Schwartzman and Tomlin, whereas Law and Watts, two golden beings, may have been grown in laboratories. The film uses Law and Watts as exemplars of shallow beauty, though neither actor lost my interest. Without finding fault with the performances of Law or Watts, I have reservations about the use to which they are put, its symbolism, which may be inspired by a petty resentment, a loser mentality: is it necessary to bring them low (to our level)? Why does it seem too hard to identify with the ambition, commitment, drive, and sheer joy of success, enabling us to use someone else’s success—their achievement of their goals, whatever they might be—as inspiration for our own very different lives? We could have seen Brad’s humanity without learning he’s a nine-minute lover, seeing him vomit, or having his girlfriend go off with a blue-collar working guy. Men like Brad are constantly jumping through hoops, visible and invisible—that’s the price of their prominence; and to suggest that, as occurs in the initial “How am I not myself?” scene, allows him his humanity and his dignity. What did the critics say about Schwartzman? Stanley Kauffmann called him ungainly, and Peter Rainer called him the dullish center of the film, and even Andrew Sarris said he lacks charm, though one might predict that Schwartzman will become a leading man in a way similar to his co-star Dustin Hoffman. The film presents Schwartzman’s Albert as a conflicted hero but a hero he is—and he does not seem to have been accepted genuinely as such by the cited (sighted?) critics. David Russell said that when he had seen Schwartzman in an earlier film, Rushmore, Russell thought of Schwartzman as a brother, as someone he had to become friends with (and subsequently did befriend). That is a very intimate identification; and in Albert, a character with autobiographical roots, the identification is doubled (“I was the character that Jason Schwartzman plays,” Russell told Film Comment). To reject the character and the actor who plays him is to reject an important part of the form and the content of Russell’s vision.
I do not know that I would go so far as to say that Russell has created a new form, but he may have invented a new sensibility. The only works I can think of, at present, other than those previously suggested, as being at all similar are Gore Vidal’s satirical inventions such as Myra Breckenridge (on sexuality) and Live From Golgotha (on Christian tradition) and Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (a consideration of identity and slavery, from a Buddhist perspective), and possibly films such as the political film Wag the Dog and The Truman Show, which suggested the lengths to which a society would go for entertainment, works that are serious at their core and use comic speculation as the main part of the text; and there may be other works I’m not thinking of, or am not aware of, and that’s part of a larger problem—things that do not fit easily into established traditions are often forgotten. There are films that are like dreams (watching them, one feels submerged, compelled), and imaginative though it is I Heart Huckabees is not one of them. Rather, this film is about becoming awake and one has to be awake to see what’s in it (there seem to be an unusual number of errors in the reviews the film has received, even in the reviews that approve of it: David Denby misreads Tommy as not very bright; Andrew Sarris writes that Dawn started the house fire as part of a suicide attempt and that Albert and Brad were former best friends; Armond White refers to Dawn as Brad’s trophy wife; and PopMatters.com’s Cynthia Fuchs writes in an otherwise observant, thoughtful review that Albert does not learn the significance of the African. I hesitate to consider what I have not perceived). Roland Barthes once wrote that the commitment to understand and explain the difficult is part of the critic’s responsibility, part of what constitutes his or her authority; and Pauline Kael once wrote that a film critic requires for nourishment –including to be able to write good criticism– more than a diet of movies: and I think this means that when reviewing texts, whether those of literature or film, certain works require more of us and we have to bring to bear substantial resources: and David Owen Russell’s I Heart Huckabees may be one such challenging film. Gavin Smith, Dennis Lim, Armond White, Ella Taylor, Andrew Sarris, Manohla Dargis, and Frederic and Mary Brussat, have come closest to satisfying those standards regarding the film.
“Man and woman and their social life, poverty, labor, sleep, fear, (and) fortune, are known to you. Learn that none of these things is superficial, but that each phenomenon has its roots in the faculties and affections of the mind. Whilst the abstract question occupies your intellect, nature brings it in the concrete to be solved by your hands” (61), advised Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Nature,” now collected in The Spiritual Emerson. Emerson, who described his own age as retrospective, evidenced by the writing of criticism, biography, and history, wrote that the relation between mind and matter was contemplated from the time of “the Egyptians and the Brahmins to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swendenborg” (38); and Emerson, who believed as does Wendell Berry in the reality of a supreme being (unlike most existentialists and many Buddhists), also wrote that “A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world” (43). Such thoughts find their reflection in David Owen Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, which I think is, like his Three Kings, a necessary film in American culture at this time; and I Heart Huckabees, which makes the getting of wisdom seem not only a matter of conflict and tears but an adventure, serious fun, may come to be perceived as an important American film, evidence of American civilization. Wendell Berry wrote in “Work Song” featured in his Collected Poems (187-188):
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
Berry, Wendell. Home Economics
. New York: North Point Press, 1987.
Sartre, Jean Paul. Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings
, edited by Stephen Priest. London, and New York: Routledge, 2001.
Linssen, Robert. Living Zen
. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Spiritual Emerson
, edited by David M. Robinson. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.
Berry, Wendell. Collected Poems: 1957-1982
. 1985. New York: North Point Press, 1987.
Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, TechnologyReports.net, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, and World Literature Today. He says, “I recently saw the films Hero, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Vanity Fair, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Motorcycle Diaries, Kilometer Zero, and Stage Beauty—I really liked Motorcycle Diaries and Stage Beauty. My film viewing occurred during a season when I also enjoyed, or remembered the pleasure of, Carl Hancock Rux’s concert in Central Park, Eva Cassidy’s albums (Songbird, Imagine, Live at Blues Alley), the Romare Bearden and Gilbert Stuart exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum, hearing and seeing Alan Hollinghurst read from his novel The Line of Beauty (it won the Booker prize shortly thereafter), listening to WBAI’s ‘Equal Time for Free Thought’ and Kiss-FM’s ‘Open Line’ radio programs, and reading some of Colin McGinn’s reviews in Minds and Bodies and all of Durrenmatt’s The Visit, a terrific play about cruelty and revenge. Huckabees remains near the top of that list.”