The Hades and Nirvana of Narcissism
By Fernando F. Croce

David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees is turning out to be the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the season, and count me among the haters. It's an infernal experience, yet one that's ultimately difficult to analyze because, within the nightmarish limits it has set out for itself, it is successfully going about its plan. Prattling and pratfalling tangled across a chaotic widescreen -- Russell throws Zen psychobabble and hipster obscurantism onto a bed and tells them to fuck. Sold as an "existential comedy" (whatever that means), the picture epitomizes a term once used by Bernardo Bertolucci in a documentary to describe a fellow filmmaker's artistic method: "expression without communication," which is to say that something may be happening up on the screen, but the poor sods in the audience are left out of it. Cinematic masturbation.

David Schwartzman, allegedly this generation's iconic malcontent since Rushmore, is the anchor around which the other non-sequiturs orbit. Swarthy and lanky here but just as oily as before, he's a young activist who takes time off his daily routine of writing bad poetry and getting tackled by security guards to ponder the Meaning of Life. Baffled by three coincidental meetings with a towering Sudanese exchange student, he hires a pair of "existential detectives" (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to follow him on his journey to save a patch of marshland from an engulfing store chain known as Huckabees. Turns out he's not the only one lugging New Age baggage with him -- there's also glib corporate climber Jude Law, his fashion-plate-gone-Amish trophy wife Naomi Watts, Mark Wahlberg clomping around in firefighter boots, and the sadly unintelligible Isabelle Huppert as the detectives' archenemy, a professional French nihilist.

"We are all connected" -- I Heart Huckabees' gallery of meltdown wackiness ironically shreds the film's dictum, since the people are such antic soloists, each with their own flavor of insufferable shtick, that they never appear to be sharing the screen. Russell's fine sense of farce (amply displayed in the far less pretentious Flirting With Disaster) keeps his whirlgig eccentrics flapping, but overall it's a thoroughly static affair, with camera movements thudding when they should be gliding to illustrate the interconnectedness of the characters. People tell me Russell's barrage of questioning philosophies is a direct reaction to a post-9/11 world where the certainties of life have been undermined, and indeed there are cracks of deep anguish beneath the film's irritatingly skittering surface (most notably during Law's literally stomach-turning epiphany at a board meeting).

Then why is the result borderline unwatchable? Short answer: directorial narcissism -- Russell curls up when he should burst out. Having tweaked family tensions (in both Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster) and the cultural implications of the Gulf War (Three Kings), he has been hailed as one of his generation's prime contenders for carrying Robert Altman's maverick torch. Please. Even at his esoteric worst, Altman's instincts are exploratory, inquiring, pushing out into the world -- by comparison, Russell retreats inwards, his groping pusillanimous, focused less in finding emotional truth than in parading his own laborious weirdness. Riddled with tensions yet cruelly denied autonomy, the characters must cope with being wind-up mouthpieces for Russell's egotistical "edginess" -- their questions naturally die in their mouths, and the movie dies along with them.

*

Narcissism plays an even larger role in Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's no-budget documentary-cum-video-experiment-cum-transcendental-confessional, yet the smirky inwardness of I Heart Huckabees is completely alien to the project's impassioned fury. Assembled on a rudimentary computer program from snapshots, Super-8 home videos, raggedy shorts, and assorted TV show and movie clips, the picture all but bleeds from the soul of its creator -- Caouette charts his wretched childhood (growing up gay in Texas, raised by a severely electroshocked mother, shuffled from abusive foster home to abusive foster home, taken in by morbidly decaying grandparents) and his own fucked-up personality pains. Image juxtapositions, Warhol-like multiple screens and fervid colorization are just a few of the tropes used to paint the trajectory of a man to whom the camera is nothing less than a lifesaver in an ocean of madness.

Feverishly edited to evoke an almost Brakhagian subjectivity, the movie's spastic nature is shaped to suggest the multiple tensions and passions churning inside the director -- film is the body housing the bubbling lava of personal exploration. What saves the picture from simple regurgitation of undigested trauma (and differentiates it from the gnarly freak shows of Harmony Korine) is Caouette's love for his mother, who emerges as the bruised angel of his life, etherealized in blurry digital halos. Even at their most degraded, the people up on screen are filtered through an unsentimental compassion, probably because they all seem to flow directly from the director's blood. In its underground lyricism, the film suggests such uncloseted stalwarts as Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, and Derek Jarman. Is Caouette in the same league? Not yet. Is he even an artist? I'm not sure, but, as Tarnation proves, he has the unmistakable, almost desperate need to use the cinema that artists have.

Reviewed October 19, 2004.


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