“Everything is connected and everything matters, now isn’t that cool?”
Dir: David O’ Russell
Fox Searchlight, 2004, USA
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Lily Tomlin, Jason Schwartzman & Naomi Watts
It was the winter of 2004 and David O’ Russell had just sold out. The once maverick darling of the blossoming American Independent scene had just released I ♥ Huckabees, dividing the cinema goers of America, and from here on in would desert the unique tone of his earlier, more daring films. For the ten previous years, O’Russell had established himself as a vital yet audacious film-maker beginning with the Oedipal eccentricities of Spanking the Monkey (1994) and the raw, oddly charming Flirting With Disaster (1996). Both films showcased a director capable of darkly comic humour and acerbic yet endearing narratives that concerned aspects of the American family life rarely portrayed on cinema screens. These films in particular signalled the emergence of a new type of American filmmaker, figures with roots deep within the independent underground and simultaneously accepted and praised on a wider scale. Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino and more would experience huge success after having toiled in independent scene for much of their early careers, often going on to garner the biggest accolades and awards in the industry, after previously having made films about taboo subjects or risqué behaviour.
Somewhere between 2004 and 2010, O’ Russell underwent a transition that would see him transfer his talents and focus away from such subjects, shifting the perspective of his films to something more easily digestible and increasingly traditional in the sense of their values and morals. The Fighter (2010) was a bitter, dark tale borne from the imagination a filmmaker attempting to reject his past, whilst American Hustle (2013) saw a total dismissal of said past, elaborate and glamorous so as to combat the raw ingenuity of his earlier career. Gone was the primitively concocted mix of darkness and erratic charm, replaced with pompous boasts and imperious presentations of skill. The films are formally excellent but they have become acutely aware of this, becoming increasingly desperate to demonstrate their masterful assembly and critically adored depictions of more universal substances.
I ♥ Huckabees was the final exclamation of O’ Russel’s peculiar talent before it entered a six year state of chrysalis, eventually emerging as the academy award baiting butterfly it is today. I ♥ Huckabees is an existential comedy, pitting a pair of ‘existential detectives’ against some of the largest and most vital questions found within the human psyche. “How am I not myself” Jude Law muses to Dustin Hoffman during a moment of introspection, only to spew verbal diarrhea over the board of directors of a multinational corporation in the very next scene.
An ensemble cast that gathered together Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Whalberg and Naomi Watts, delivered an esoteric, thoughtful and hilarious script that asked the audience to humour the unusual and curious philosophy at its centre. The plot, for what it’s worth, follows the conflict between a young activist and a shallow big business yes man along with the aforementioned existential investigation into the events by a married duo of two scholarly educators. Thrown into the mix are a deluded, aggressive fireman and a nihilistic former student – introducing an invisible battle between doctrines alongside the surface battles between characters.
The method to I ♥ Huckabees madness is its ability to draw you into expectancy, only to consistently pull the rug from underneath and conclude the train of thought somewhere completely unpredictable. In its sense of humour is a strange rhythm, combining the agile exchange of words with a slow burning wit so to disorientate the viewer and find fun in the reactions to, and subtleties of, American comedy. It would be redundant to express any of the dialogue here, in written form, as it would lack the undertones, mannerisms and complexities found in the directing and acting, instead the humour can only be fully enjoyed as part of the whole experience, by which time it has already managed to smuggle insightful views into American Life over the border of its viewers consciousness.
The two differentiating philosophies go like this: Everything is connected, or, nothing is connected at all. One the hopeful, optimistic assurance that promotes togetherness and draws influences from transcendentalism and romanticism, the other a bitter and numb nihilism that achieves moments of detachment so as to escape from modern living. In post 9/11 America, this rivalry of emotions was a prevalent feature of the national identity, a hope for a better world invariably plagued by senseless acts of cruelty and never-ending vanity. Throughout I ♥ Huckabees there is a constant longing to combine these schools of thought, as a means to understanding the mysteries of life. O’ Russell eventually submits that the opposing doctrines are as meaningless as they are meaningful, each with their own deep flaws and incredible virtues, a visual PHD crafted by the class clown.
You may have seen the infamous behind the scenes video in which O’ Russell proceeds to angrily dismantle the set whilst unleashing a stream of viscous criticism towards actress Lily Tomlin, a fiery display of the passion that the artist had poured into every fissure of his work. I ♥ Huckabees returned middling reviews, a critical split aimed at the scattershot nature of the film. Some believed the film’s ambitious explorations of the psyche to be poorly handled, that the film asked you to follow the presented doctrines blindly only to mock your quick acceptance.
However, how does one effectively convey the scattered identity of America if not by a scattershot approach? Is it not an ideal manner in which to present this specific audience with their own dilemmas and cognitions? As the two disparate philosophies converge towards the end of the film they propose a solution and a medication to the modern American psyche, something interpretable only on an individual level by the viewer of the film – your reaction to the synergism of ideologies and, your interpretation of it, provides you with a unique personal philosophy to apply to 21st century life.
The Fighter is the work of a man disillusioned with his audience, one that he perceived to be intelligent enough to understand his most explicit investigation into human life, only then to face a room full of blank faces and sparse applause. The Fighter dulls down the sharp blade of O’ Russell’s insight, focusing his interest on to a single figure as opposed to the entire human mind. The film indulges in the nihilism presented in Huckabees with physical pain and battery becoming a means of escape and withdrawal to the characters. O Russell’s films mutated into ostentatious displays of technical brilliance, yearning to please the audience he had accumulated over the years with the visual skill he had developed, and to move away from the whimsical philosophies of the independent years. I ♥ Huckabees was the pivot in a startling career that allowed its creator a chance to gauge the limits of his audience, but simultaneously requested that he choose a section to pander to.
O’ Russell’s work post Huckabees is not necessarily bad, but there is an underlying suspicion that he is holding something back, that he is restraining a deep desire to suddenly veer into impulsive, eccentric film-making and dash off the shackles of the academy that dictate the content of his work. I ♥ Huckabees is O’ Russell’s love letter to his own career, a last expression of pure creativity from a man who knew he wanted to work with bigger audiences and experience greater challenges. I ♥ Huckabees is a goodbye to the style that made the name, equally a thankful fulfilling of an ambitious desire and a tearing away from a symbiotic relationship.
- Kristofer Thomas