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Duck That Huck

'I ♥ Huckabees': seven characters in search of a movie

By Richard von Busack

TAKING A hard look at a little movie like I ♥ Huckabees is like hitting a fluffy bunny with a two-by-four. Letting it be overpraised precisely because of its intellectual fluffy-bunniness isn't doing anyone any favors, though. David O. Russell's new film—his first since Three Kings—is an essentially airheaded look at the struggle between the need to earn a living and the search for meaning.

I ♥ Huckabees endorses a pop version of American transcendentalism, touched up with Buddhism and the new physics. These beliefs are boiled down to the optimistic hopes that all will be well, because everything's connected. The gentle, smiling, menschy Dustin Hoffman plays Bernard, an "existential detective," happily married to his partner (Lily Tomlin). The two, who are therapists as much as investigators, zero in on the life of a crisis-struck nebbish.

Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is an open-space activist who's trying to preserve a depressing little patch of land—a swamp with a papier-mâché rock next to it. The megastore Huckabees planned to bulldoze this as their new site. Now the corporation has joined in a "community partnership" to preserve the space and promote itself. The superstore's point man is Brad (Jude Law); his mistress, Dawn, is the Huckabees spokesmodel, played by Naomi Watts in a role that doesn't do her any favors. Brad wields enough clout to push Albert aside; the unshaven, undersized activist had hoped that his bad poetry would move people to save the swamp. According to Bernard and Lili, Albert needs to reaffirm his relationship to a pair of friends he hasn't met yet. One is a fireman (Mark Wahlberg) who can't stand the idea of America's oil dependency. The other is a mysterious Sudanese refugee who seems to have significance in Albert's life. Representing cruel French existentialism is Isabelle Huppert, the most perverse-looking woman in the movies since the death of Gale "The Spider Woman" Sondergaard. As seen in the coming attractions trailers, Hoffman's Bernard visualizes universal interconnectedness with a warm, fuzzy white blankey. Huppert, as a visiting philosopher named Caterine, embodies it with an act gratuit: barbaric roiling sex in the mud.

The urge to walk out is hard to resist: what movie that looks at life on these simplistic levels is possibly going to choose alienation? Like Jason Mewes said in Clerks, you can hate people and still love parties. One can realize the universe is hostile and still enjoy the diversions of the world—like a good movie, for example; one can understand the human duty to protect the environment for today, even if human life is probably doomed tomorrow. How can Russell overlook the implicit responsibility in these philosophical traditions? Emerson's and Thoreau's work doesn't boil down to "choose idleness." Sartre's work doesn't add up to "It's all futile, so don't struggle."Never mind the fallacies, this is a straining, unfunny movie. Its everyman is so pusillanimous it is hard to follow him as a representative of questioning humanity. In other words, Schwartzman is not a presence strong enough to carry a movie. Don't mention Rushmore, which was really carried by its soundtrack, not the actor.

I ♥ Huckabees (R; 105 min.), directed by David O. Russell, written by Russell and Jeff Baena, photographed by Peter Deming and starring Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin and Jason Schwartzman, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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